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Protection of older Australians improved since the beginning of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Newly released statistics have confirmed significantly more aged care residents died from COVID-19 than any other Australian demographic in the first year of the pandemic, but the head of a peak industry organisation says protections of residents have since improved.

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Older Australians are better protected from COVID-19 now than at the beginning of the pandemic, according to an industry representative. [Source: Shutterstock]

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has released a report on the direct and indirect health effects of the pandemic across the country, covering the 12 months since it began to April 2021.

The data in the report showed people living in residential aged care facilities made up 75 percent of Australian deaths from COVID-19 in 2020, despite only making up seven percent of the total cases.

Around 540 Australians who died from COVID-19 in 2020 were at least 85 years old or older, out of a total of 900 deaths.

Leading Age Services Australia Chief Executive Officer Sean Rooney says these statistics have been expected.

“The older age groups were among the most vulnerable during the pandemic and that remains the case although the vaccinations will have given them added protection,” he says.

“These figures confirm what we knew during the initial six months of the pandemic with the outbreaks at Dorothy Henderson Lodge and Newmarch House in Sydney in May-June 2020, and then the outbreaks in Melbourne.”

The Institute’s report does not include any data from the latest wave of the pandemic which is currently heavily affecting the Eastern States in particular, where there have been more deaths of aged care residents, but Mr Rooney says this year’s data is still likely to be improved on 2020 figures.

“While older Australians remain among those most vulnerable to COVID-19, a number of things are different now when compared to the first nine months of the pandemic in 2020,” he says.

The differences include that a majority of older Australians in residential aged care are now fully vaccinated, a majority of care staff have had at least one vaccination dose, residential aged care providers have adequate supplies of Personal Protective Equipment as well as hand sanitiser, have strict hygiene and infection control protocols and have the aged care sector-developed Visitor Access Code in place, according to Mr Rooney.

He says each residential aged care facility must also appoint a qualified nurse to be the lead person for infection prevention and control, while providers and government departments are more prepared with better communication between the industry, residents, staff and families.

“These changes mean that our vulnerable older people are better protected and safer while in residential care,” Mr Rooney says.

“We would expect that with these measures in place and armed with what we have learned from the outbreaks in aged care in Sydney and Melbourne, that the number of deaths among older people are fewer in 2021 than in 2020. 

“It is important to remember that many hundreds of aged care homes remained, and continue to remain, COVID-free. 

“The presence of well-rehearsed COVID plans by aged care providers means that any COVID infections of residents or staff are quickly contained and do not spread through the home.”

An indirect health effect of the pandemic outlined in the Institute’s report is that a “substantially lower than expected” number of cases of influenza were recorded in 2020 and there were fewer deaths from flu, pneumonia and chronic lower respiratory infections than the average over the previous five years.

However, the report also highlighted that Australia did not keep COVID-19 cases and deaths to as low a rate as New Zealand, and that if the country had done as well as its neighbour it would have recorded around 18,000 fewer cases and 780 fewer deaths.

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