COVID-19 has been hitting the aged care workforce hard with some facilities losing anywhere between five to 50 percent of their staff due to positive COVID-19 results or staff needing to quarantine as close contacts of a case.
On top of this, peak bodies state that staff burnout among the workforce is resulting in widespread resignations.
Industry bodies, including the Australian Aged Care Collaboration (AACC, consisting of six aged care peak bodies), the United Workers Union (UWU) and the Health Services Union (HSU), have joined together to call for extra assistance from the Government.
The organisations are asking for:
- Immediate ADF support where requested
- A COVID-19 payment for all staff
- Resolution of ongoing issues regarding access to Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) supplies
- Fix unresolved systemic funding and workforce issues outlined in the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safey Final Report
While the peak bodies and unions have acknowledged that Minister for Health and Aged Care, Greg Hunt, has just announced private hospital staff may be able to assist in aged care, the industry is still waiting on details of how this will operate.
Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Aged and Community Services Australia (ACSA) and AACC spokesperson, Paul Sadler, says that the Omicron wave has created an emergency in aged care and that it requires an emergency response.
"As we deal with Omicron and enter the third year of the pandemic, the aged care system and our dedicated workforce have been pushed to the brink," says Mr Sadler.
"We have serious staff shortages and furloughing across residential and home care and this flows on to risks and pressure on the quality of care for older people.
"ACSA has joined with unions in calling on the Government to provide immediate ADF support for aged care where requested, better access to RAT and PPE supplies and a COVID-19 payment for all staff.
"We also acknowledge the urgent need to address systemic funding and workforce issues to build resilience in the sector and assist with the recovery, including implementing the recommendations of the recent Royal Commission."
Over 1,000 aged care facilities now have a COVID-19 outbreak across the country, putting further pressure on the available workforce.
Aged care peak body Leading Age Services Australia (LASA) says it is receiving deperate requests from members on a daily basis around access to RATs, PPE and a surge workforce, but there is "no surge workforce to speak of".
CEO of LASA and AACC spokesperson, Sean Rooney, says one residential and home care provider in Victoria have 29 percent of shifts unable to be filled and staff working overtime to fill those gaps at double and triple rates.
"The situation is already dire and we need to act urgently to support the sector to continue to deliver quality care and protect our older Australians. ADF personnel are regularly used in emergency situations. At such times they can provide health care, communications and transport and logistics services," explains Mr Rooney.
"Providers having access to a pool of qualified and skilled personnel, who can be called upon to assist as and when needed, is what surge workforce is all about. That is why we have suggested ADF assistance to support services in the areas of clinical care, visitation support, supply chain logistics, waste removal, etc.
"Urgent and decisive action to support aged care workers on the frontline, as they continue the fight to keep those in their care safe, is what is required.”
Mr Rooney says that anything the Government can do to help fill the gaps in the workforce is critical at the moment, including establishing an appropriate surge workforce program for future variants and waves of COVID-19.
However, on Wednesday this week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison made it clear that the Government would not deploy the ADF into residential aged care facilities as they don't believe this will adequately solve the issues currently in aged care.
PM Morrison says the deaths of aged care residents in 2020 are not being seen today due to the double vaccination rate, which is why he is encouraging booster shots for all in aged care.
"I know it is very challenging for the aged care sector, but aged care workers are in short supply. They're in short supply in every country that is facing this crisis," says PM Morrison.
"...We are responsible for the aged care sector and we are doing everything we can to support them in providing that care and support that is needed through workforce and through Rapid Antigen Testing and booster clinics and other things… where possible, [we] are providing additional workforce and in acute situations.
"...As I said before, the Defence Forces are not a surrogate aged care workforce. They can't just make those problems go away. There will continue to be challenges in aged care. That is a problem of the virus. And it's a problem that has been seen in many jurisdictions."
The workforce unions, however, believe that the current COVID-19 crisis in aged care requires immediate action through a 'home guard' style system which would be similar to the emergency initiative that saw Volunteer Defence Corps deployed during World War II to alleviate pressure on aged care staff.
National President of the HSU, Gerard Hayes, says the aged care sector is experiencing a huge crisis that needs to be immediately rectified and that conditions for both staff and residents are deteriorating rapidly as COVID-19 cases rise in aged care.
"We are hearing horrific reports from our members. Some facilities are so short-staffed residents aren’t being showered for days. Others are experiencing food supply issues," says Mr Hayes.
"The majority of staff are exhausted and many are quitting. It is an unmitigated catastrophe. The Government failed to prepare before letting Omicron rip and this is the disastrous result.
"Overworked, modestly-paid staff and aged care residents, who helped build this country, deserve better."
Mr Hayes also suggested that the Government could fix the problem by paying everyday Australians to go into aged care facilities to provide assistance in roles that require little training, like food delivery.
Aged Care Director of UWU, Carolyn Smith, explains that aged care workers want to do their job to the best of their ability and provide older Australians with the care they deserve, but Omicron is putting up barriers to providing quality care.
"It is really distressing that it has come to having to call for the army to help protect our vulnerable older people but this is the level the crisis has reached after years of Government neglect in the sector," says Ms Smith.
"Putting private health sector staff into the public sector hospital and aged care system looks good on paper, but aged care workers have seen the low priority placed on aged care and seriously doubt they will benefit from this move.
"It’s time for Scott Morrison to do his job, take responsibility for this mess and listen to the workers and providers before things get even worse."