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Government grilled over poor aged care workforce vaccination numbers

The Federal Government was taken to task over their conflicting information around the number of aged care staff that have been vaccinated so far against COVID-19 at Tuesday's Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee.

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Less than 10 percent of aged care workers have been vaccinated over the six month COVID-19 vaccine rollout. [Source: Senate Committee Live]

Heads were locked between Minister for Aged Care Services, Richard Colbeck; and Senators Kate Gallagher and Murray Watt, who expressed frustration at the Department of Health for not bringing appropriate data to the Committee and being vague about vaccination numbers for aged care workers.

Currently, most of the aged care staff that have been vaccinated at their facilities were done so because of leftover vaccines from residents.

The numbers provided by Associate Secretary of the Health Department, Caroline Edwards - which she even described as "untidy" and "rushed" - shows 32,833 staff across the country has had two doses and are fully vaccinated and a further 1,887 staff has been vaccinated but the Department is unsure whether that is first or second doses.

Less than 10 percent (8.9 percent) of the aged care workforce has received two COVID-19 doses after six months of the vaccine rollout.

The Government is also unsure about numbers for workers who have gone out of their way to get vaccinated themselves.

There was also conflicting information put forward by Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, on Monday, who was originally quoting that over 70,000 aged care workers nationally were vaccinated and a quarter of that were Victorians.

However, the Health Department believes Minister Hunt had misinterpreted the numbers and was actually referring to the number of doses, not workers.

Minister Colbeck was grilled over what Committee members described as an attempt to keep "misleading the public" about the vaccine rollout.

"I don't believe that Minister Hunt has at any point in time deliberately misled anybody. He has been very open with the information that he is provided on a very regular basis… I don't believe that Minister Hunt has in any deliberate way tried to mislead anybody with respect to the information he was provided," says Minister Colbeck.

Additionally, 21 facilities had not been visited yet nationally (at the time of the Committee), which conflicted with information from Minister Hunt who originally said it was only six facilities.

Sixty-four percent of aged care residents are fully vaccinated and only 57 percent of aged care residents are vaccinated in Victoria. 

Poor data collection

Senator Watt was not happy with the data collection of vaccinated staff members as the Government prepares to roll out a new mechanism for providers to log workforce vaccination numbers on Friday.

Additionally, the Department of Health was struggling to give accurate numbers around workforce vaccinations and stated they have specific data but not compiled data on staff inoculation.

He says that it looks like the Government only put these processes in place after the second Victorian aged care outbreak. However, Minister Colbeck denied that was the case, saying that these systems were already being developed before the most recent outbreak. 

Senator Watt says, "Minister, what we have established today is that everyone knows that aged care is a high risk setting. Eighty-five percent, or thereabouts, of the last Victorian outbreaks were caused by staff who were unvaccinated bringing COVID in. 

"What we've established [Tuesday] is that only half of the Victorian aged care residents have had their second dose. One-third of Victorian residential aged-care facilities haven't had a second dose. 

"You don't know how many aged-care workers in Victoria have been vaccinated. Are you really comfortable with how this rollout is going, as you've been telling the media? It's a debacle."

Minister Colbeck responded, "Well, I completely reject your characterisation and your grandstanding moment."

Minister Colbeck also doubled down on his comments made to media that he was comfortable with the pace of the vaccine rollout.

He adds that if the Government had known from the outset that the vaccine would protect against transmission, there would have been a different rollout to aged care residents and aged care workers.

Another talking point of the Committee was around the provisions for one worker one-site regulations in aged care, which were dropped last year in November, and now the current regulation is for one worker one-site only if there is a COVID-19 hot spot.

The Committee was not happy to hear that this decision to ban aged care workers from working across multiple facilities was dropped before the vaccines were made available in February.

"Who is responsible?"

A long, fiery exchange occurred between Minister Colbeck and Senators Watt and Gallagher, after Minister Colbeck refused to say whether he was responsible for the vaccine rollout to aged care staff.

The Senators wanted confirmation on whose responsibility it was to vaccinate aged care staff and residents but received roundabout answers to their questions about State/Territory and Federal partnerships.

Senator Watt says, "This is a government that funds aged care and regulates aged care and, the minute anything goes wrong, tries to blame someone else and say it's someone else's fault. That is what is offensive."

To read the full proceedings of the Senate Committee, head to the Parliament of Australia website.

"Despicable"

The United Workers Union (UWU) has expressed its dismay at what they describe as the Federal Government's attempt to shift the blame of the "failed aged care vaccination program" on to aged care workers.

UWU have been following the Senate Committee closely and have been increasingly upset by comments from the Department of Health and from the Aged Care Minister.

UWU Aged Care Director, Carolyn Smith, says, "It is disgraceful that aged care workers are being dragged into an argument about whether vaccinations should be made mandatory. The truth of the matter is aged care workers have been left out of the vaccination program altogether – they simply have not had the option of getting the vaccine at all.

"Health Minister Greg Hunt and Prime Minister Scott Morrison are making a political play to escape responsibility for their failed aged care vaccination program.

"Given what we are once again seeing in aged care in Victoria, states outside Victoria should be rightly concerned that aged care workers across the country are largely unvaccinated.

"We are risking a national tragedy when Aged Care Services Minister Richard Colbeck can’t even give a figure on the number of aged care workers who have been vaccinated.

"But it’s not about whether vaccinations should be mandatory. As the United Workers Union has documented repeatedly, the vaccination program has completely failed to reach aged care workers, and has largely left them to get vaccinated on their own time."

Ms Smith adds that it is devastating to think that the real possibility of a COVID-19 aged care facility outbreak still hangs over older Australians and aged care workers due to the failed vaccine rollout program.

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