A Victorian nursing home is fighting to contain a coronavirus outbreak just days after it was officially given the all-clear to relax infection control protocols.
There are now 10 active coronavirus cases at Estia Health Keilor in Melbourne’s north-west, including six residents and four staff members.
As first reported by The New Daily on Wednesday, a second outbreak emerged at the Keilor Downs facility after a resident unknowingly carried the virus into the centre following a brief hospital visit on September 6, where he was exposed to a COVID-positive patient for two hours.
The New Daily can reveal the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) had given the facility permission to ease strict infection control protocols from September 5, just days before the second outbreak started.
In the first week of August, the facility suffered its first outbreak, in which two residents and two staff members contracted the virus.
During that time, the infected residents were immediately transferred to hospital, while the workers were told to isolate at home.
In the weeks that followed, no one else at the facility tested positive and it appeared the nursing home had contained the outbreak.
On August 21, the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) gave the nursing home the green light to slowly return to normal operations, meaning residents would be allowed to spend time together in communal areas and move freely around the home.
In a statement to The New Daily, an Estia Health spokeswoman said: “We were advised by DHHS that on September 5, the home could start returning to normal operations following a recent outbreak”.
The New Daily understands “normal operations” means that staff were given permission to abandon wearing full PPE during their entire shifts.
Instead of donning the whole kit, which includes long-sleeved gowns, gloves, surgical face masks and face shields, workers would only need to wear face masks and face shields from September 5.
During a conference call with residents’ families on Tuesday night, of which The New Daily has obtained a recording, Estia Health CEO Ian Thorley confirmed that full PPE was no longer a DHHS requirement given the initial August outbreak had been resolved.
When a resident’s family member alleged, “Staff were not in full PPE last week”, Mr Thorley replied: “That’s correct – the home had been stood down from its original outbreak.”
He claimed that not only were staff told to wear masks and face shields on duty as per DHHS requirements, Estia Health had gone a step further and directed workers to also wear gowns and gloves when coming into close contact with residents for extra protection.
Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) was approached for comment but did not respond before deadline.
A matter of trust
John, who has a relative living at the Keilor Downs nursing home and did not want his real name published, said he had no faith in the leadership at Estia Health.
“This is the second outbreak, the second time this has happened … but it doesn’t seem like they’ve learned a damn thing,” he said.
“We specifically asked ahead of [Tuesday’s] meeting, ‘If the staff are all currently wearing PPE and gowned up with gloves and masks, then how is it that so many staff are now infected?'”
“[Mr Thorley] said according to state guidelines, their first outbreak had been considered to be over, and therefore in the home they wound back some of the protective measures they’d been taking.
“Now, here we are: They wound back some measures and now there’s an outbreak. It’s mental.”
Even before the coronavirus outbreaks, John said the facility was plagued with issues.
“It seems like they are always short of staff, on weekdays and weekends,” he told The New Daily.
“It’s a money-printing machine for them, but they’re not investing the dollars back into staff capability and the facility itself.”
Fixing a broken industry
Healthcare advisor Alan Forbes, CEO of Patient Experience Group, said the aged care industry was in a state of “crisis”.
“Aged care has experienced struggle after struggle,” he told The New Daily, pointing to ongoing failings in the industry exposed by the Royal Commission.
“These continued outbreaks need more attention, resources, and empathy to ensure that the experiences of the residents are improved.”
So far, 574 coronavirus-related deaths in Victoria have been linked to aged care homes.
Although aged care is a federal responsibility regulated by the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission, Victoria’s DHHS also offers coronavirus safety guidelines for aged-care providers.