Families of Australia’s most vulnerable people say their loved ones have been left as “sitting ducks”, as coronavirus cases in nursing homes explode and the federal and Victorian governments take turns pointing fingers.
Australia recorded 399 new infections and six more deaths on Tuesday – two people in their 90s, three in their 80s and one in their 60s. Victorians accounted for 384 of the new cases.
Four of the latest deaths were linked to aged-care clusters and authorities fear there are more to come, with 769 cases in residents and staff across the state.
On Tuesday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews drew the ire of federal ministers when he told reporters he wouldn’t let his mum be put in some of Victoria’s private aged-care facilities as he didn’t have the confidence staff and management could provide appropriate care.
The federal government is responsible for regulating aged care.
While federal and state leaders traded blows, family members of aged-care residents have shared grim tales of errors and mismanagement.
Elderly people are most likely to suffer the worst symptoms of COVID-19, but it’s become clear the reasons behind the increasing disaster are more complicated than just bad luck.
St Basil’s Homes for the Aged at Fawkner is among Victoria’s worst-hit facilities.
Less than two weeks ago, only five residents were confirmed to have the coronavirus. By Tuesday, that number had ballooned to 86.
“If that had been me or anyone else running a company, you would’ve been walked out,” he said.
“My biggest issue is the neglect. This isn’t even a COVID issue – this is a pure neglect issue.”
Since July 23, Mr Karikas said he and a dozen other families had been pushing for their loved ones to be evacuated from St Basil’s amid rising case numbers.
“People who were sick should’ve been taken to a hospital straight away,” he said, adding a makeshift COVID ward for sick residents was set up inside the nursing home instead.
“We wanted to clear the facility of all residents and put them in a hospital so they could be assessed properly by a doctor, with the site cleared for a deep clean and decontamination.”
Mr Karikas said while the home was placed under lockdown, some of the residents in the dementia ward were able to walk around unsupervised into the rooms holding coronavirus patients.
As of Tuesday, nearly all the residents had been transferred to hospitals – some without their next of kin being told – and all staff members told to go home and self-isolate.
In an emotional letter to the federal government, seen by The New Daily, the daughter of a St Basil’s resident said her mum had not eaten for three days while under the new team’s care.
Her mother, who cannot swallow by herself, was given only solid food to eat like pasties and spring rolls when she is usually fed a diet of soft foods like yoghurt and broth.
“She was dying not from her illness or COVID, but from neglect,” she wrote.
“I accept my mother has an incurable disease and she will die. I will not stand for her to die from mistreatment.”
How did we get here?
Australia’s first aged-care resident to die from the coronavirus was recorded as early as March 4.
The 95-year-old woman was a resident at Dorothy Henderson Lodge at Macquarie Park. She died in a Sydney hospital.
Four days later on March 8, an 82-year-old man living at the same aged-care home died from the virus.
Weeks later on April 11, an outbreak linked to an infected staff member was declared at Newmarch House aged-care nursing home in NSW.
Within four weeks, 19 residents at the home had died, bringing the national death toll to 100.
Similar outbreaks soon began to occur at aged-care homes in Victoria.
About 40 aged-care facilities across the state, mainly in Melbourne, have now recorded at least one case of COVID-19.
So who’s to blame?
A war of words is erupting between government authorities on who has dropped the ball in the private nursing home system, with Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews drawn into a public face-off with federal ministers.
The Premier said he didn’t want to get into finger pointing or blame shifting, but the “catastrophe” – as it was described by federal Labor’s deputy leader Richard Marles – has many seeking answers.
The situation is complicated by the fact that regulation of aged care homes is a federal responsibility, but public health responses are the domain of state governments.
“I won’t stand here and say, ‘This is just a Commonwealth government matter’. We don’t run this sector, but the residents in these homes are all Victorians,” Mr Andrews said on Tuesday.
The federal-led Victorian Aged Care Response Centre has been called in, with officials from both levels of government meant to work more closely.
The Premier also said that elective surgery would be postponed in Victoria, with state-paid staff redirected to aged-care homes to “take over”.
Shadow aged care minister Julie Collins said the system was “already in crisis” before the COVID-19 pandemic, pointing to a Royal Commission in the sector, and said authorities should have been better prepared given previous outbreaks at NSW nursing homes.
“The federal government runs the aged-care system,” she said bluntly.
“The federal government should have known how much PPE facilities in Victoria had. So that they could make an assessment and get the logistics behind it quickly to get the gear there faster.
“We shouldn’t have to be playing catch up all the time.”
In response to questioning from the Senate select committee on COVID-19 in May, the Department of Health revealed at least 1346 aged-care providers had requested access to PPE from the national stockpile.
Labor pointed to this as evidence the federal government should have better anticipated the need for more help in the nursing home sector.
“If providers weren’t ready, the federal government should have known that. It’s the federal government’s job to know that. That is the whole point of them regulating aged care in Australia,” Ms Collins said.