Covid may have peaked in Australia’s aged care workforce after cases doubled in July

·4 min read

The number of active Covid cases in the aged care workforce doubled in a single month in July, placing a huge burden on an already overstretched workforce.

Analysis of recent Covid data shows a rapid and sharp increase in case numbers among aged care staff as the current Omicron wave peaked in the sector at the end of July.

Active cases among aged care staff more than doubled from 1,730 in the week ending 1 July to 3,546 in the week ending 29 July. The most recent data, published last week, shows active case numbers among staff have decreased to 2,589 in the first week of August.

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The cases were overwhelmingly concentrated in New South Wales and Queensland. Of the 7,170 total staff cases associated with current outbreaks, including those who have recovered, 2,172 were in NSW and another 2,157 were in Queensland, according to a Guardian analysis.

A further 1,162 cases were recorded among staff in Victoria, while 987 and 478 staff were recorded as cases in South Australia and Western Australia respectively.

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The data also shows a continued high number of resident deaths. In the week to 5 August, there were 165 new deaths reported by aged care providers. The week prior, the number of deaths was 176, the worst since the January Omicron wave. The weekly average since April has been 90 deaths.

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But in encouraging signs the number of active outbreaks in aged care has dropped to 952 in the most recent data. That’s down from 1,064 and 1,013 in the two weeks prior, and is the first time the number of active outbreaks have fallen since mid June.

The number of resident and staff cases associated with active outbreaks has also dropped for the first time in more than a month. There were 14,554 resident cases and 7,170 staff cases associated with active outbreaks in the week to 5 August. That’s down from 15,072 residents and 8,190 staff in the week prior.

Unions say the huge spike in cases among aged care staff has put further pressure on the workforce, which was already battling understaffing.

Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation federal secretary, Annie Butler, said the current surge workforce – provided by the Australian Defence Force and private contractors – was not enough to plug the gaps.

“There are a lot of issues on the ground, you can just imagine the burden on the workforce,” she said. “And it’s so hard because everyone’s sick of it. It’s been going on for so long, it’s very demoralising, particularly for aged care staff.”

The United Workers Union aged care director, Carolyn Smith, said she had heard reports of two workers looking after 40 frail residents and of staff working double shifts for two weeks straight, without a day off.

“I think every outbreak we just see a situation where again the chronic understaffing we’ve got in aged care gets seriously exacerbated by people being off with Covid,” she said.

A spokesperson for the aged care minister, Anika Wells, acknowledged there was a clear need for more workers in aged care. That was why the government had made a submission to the Fair Work Commission on Monday for a significant pay rise, the spokesperson said.

“We have committed to funding the outcome of this case because a pay rise is critical to attracting staff back to the sector following nine years of neglect,” the spokesperson said.

The government said it had extended the use of the surge workforce, which filled 2,751 shifts last week. It said the ADF had not provided support to 497 residential facilities.

Butler said the recent data – showing a decrease in active outbreaks and cases among staff and residents – was positive, as were the aged care reforms passed through the lower house late last month. Those reforms will, among other things, mandate 24/7 nursing at aged care facilities.

But she warned the preparation for the next wave must begin immediately, including through better vigilance on infection prevention and control, improved access to personal protective equipment, and improved booster vaccination rates.