An inquest into a COVID-19 outbreak that led to 50 deaths at a Melbourne aged-care home has heard conditions there became so bad that health staff were reduced to tears.
The inquiry into the deaths at St Basil’s Home for the Aged in Fawkner during the state’s second outbreak in 2020 opened on Monday with the names of each of those who died read out in court.
In an opening statement counsel assisting Peter Rozen QC said staff at the home were deemed “close contacts” and furloughed on July 22, with the Commonwealth taking over the home.
He said a lack of care for residents had become apparent by the end of the first day of the takeover, after the federal health department could not find enough new staff.
The court heard that by July 23, pathology staff visiting to test residents found the conditions “shocking to say the least”.
The medical director of Melbourne Pathology Dr Ellen Maxwell alerted the Victorian health department that COVID-positive residents were mixing freely with others, bins were overflowing, PPE had not been cleared and medication was on the floor.
She said one staff member was in tears, appalled that a patient who had died was wheeled out of the home with no attempt to clear the corridor of people.
The first witness at the inquest was Christine Golding, whose mother Efraxia, 84, caught the virus at the home.
She testified that before the outbreak, St Basil’s had provided good, culturally appropriate care for her mother, but described conditions later on as “horrible”.
She said staff at the hospital where her mother was later transferred were also in tears, unable to believe the state that St Basil’s residents were in.
The court heard the decision to replace regular staff at the home was made despite warnings that it was dangerous.
Mr Rozen said public servants in Canberra who had never been to St Basil’s decided on staffing “in the teeth of very clear warning from doctors who are caring for those same residents”.
One doctor involved in the response, Dr Rabin Sinnappu, warned that replacing all of the regular St Basil’s staff would result in disaster, while another described it as a “shocking” idea.
Mr Rozen said there were too few replacement staff to look after 100 elderly and frail people during the outbreak, and although a number of the new workers went “above and beyond”, the circumstances were impossible.
Forty-five residents died from coronavirus, but the inquest is also covering five other deaths at the home during the same period.
Victorian State Coroner John Cain will spend the next five weeks hearing from 65 witnesses about how the virus got into the home and how it spread among residents.