Almost half of Australia’s aged care facilities are battling Covid outbreaks with unboosted residents dominating the nation’s death toll, as the Morrison government defends missing its own booster rollout deadline.
The impact of the delayed rollout was laid bare on Sunday, when health authorities in New South Wales revealed that 31 of the 52 daily deaths were aged care residents, with just two having received their third shot of the Covid vaccine while seven were unvaccinated. More than 400 aged care residents in Australia have died of Covid since the beginning of January.
There were active outbreaks at 1,261 of the roughly 2,700 residential aged care facilities in the country, new data revealed. Given there were no active outbreaks at any of Western Australia’s almost 200 facilities, more than one in every two homes in all remaining states and territories are battling outbreaks.
However, aged care industry groups remain sympathetic to the impact that Covid isolation orders for health staff have played in the delays, instead pointing the finger at state governments, specifically in NSW, for easing Covid restrictions too quickly and contributing to “another disaster that was at least partly preventable”.
The commonwealth had aimed to have offered booster doses to every aged care residential facilities in the country by Monday.
Paul Sadler, chief executive of Aged & Community Services Australia, said organising the mobile booster clinics in aged care homes – a process which began in early November, a week after regulatory approval was given – “was always going to be a logistical challenge”, but acknowledged it had become “overwhelmed by Omicron”.
“Because of the staffing shortages, both within aged care and among vaccine clinic providers, there really was such a slowdown in the pace … we started to lose staff pretty heavily from mid-December,” he said.
Sadler said the commonwealth clinics had not yet visited about 500 facilities, but this was because many aged care providers had organised their own booster vaccinations with GPs and pharmacies ahead of the scheduled visit offered to them by the government.
Despite the delayed rollout, Sadler cited relaxed rules around masks and gatherings and the pace at which that allowed Covid to sideline health workers and spread the virus into homes as a key driver of the high Covid death toll in the sector.
“The bigger picture issue here is the decision, particularly the decision from the NSW government, to open up the general community at a time when aged care did not have access to boosters, to rapid antigen tests to test residents and families, and access to enough protective equipment.”
“The policies to open up to allow community transmission in the way it happened without the protections in place for the aged care community has ended up in another disaster that was at least partly preventable,” he said, adding that tighter rules in December “could have slowed it down and had an impact on how bad the situation has ended up”.
Sadler said he had been assured that booster clinics would visit all facilities by the end of this week.
He said many residents remain unboosted because the interval between second and third doses was six months when the rollout began in November. The interval window has now been shortened to three months.
He said many residents had been ineligible when the booster clinic was run at their facility, in part due to the delayed rollout of the initial two doses in the sector.
“These people account for the largest group of those unvaccinated in aged care. They simply weren’t eligible at the time the vaccine clinic visited them,” he said.
The health minister, Greg Hunt, played down the number of homes yet to be offered booster shots.
He said “approximately 99%” of facilities were expected to have completed their booster shot rollout by Monday, and that those not yet visited were due to “reasons such as outbreaks” in a facility or vaccination providers having an outbreak among their staff.
Hunt also reiterated that the deadline had now been revised from the original schedule to the end of January in response to the spread of the Omicron variant. “In fact, we will have finished about six weeks ahead of our intended schedule, and that was a fast schedule in any event.”
“We have one of the lowest rates of loss of life in aged care. But every, every life we fight for,” Hunt said.
Sadler called on the commonwealth to release data about how many aged care residents had been boosted. Guardian Australia has requested this data from the health department.
A spokesperson said that more than 2310 residential facilities had so far hosted booster clinics, and that homes with active outbreaks had been prioritised.
Mark Butler, opposition health spokesperson, called the booster rollout to aged care “a gross failure on the part of the government”.
“It’s very clear we needed those boosters in the arms of aged care residents as quickly as possible – that was all the advice that had been given to the government.”
“This booster program began 12 weeks ago. How on earth can this happen?” Butler said.