Unboosted aged care residents dominate Covid deaths as Morrison government misses rollout deadline

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”.

Sign up to receive the top stories from Guardian Australia every morning

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.


Elias Visontay

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Calls for extension to Australia’s compulsory aged care vaccinations as Friday deadline approaches
90.8% of staff have received a single dose, but Health Services Union says sector can’t afford to lose even 5% of its workforce

Sarah Martin Chief political correspondent

12, Sep, 2021 @5:30 PM

Article image
Morrison government under pressure from within to expand aged care Covid vaccine mandate
Despite existing deadline appearing unfeasible, some Coalition MPs want mandate extended to in-home carers and disability sector

Sarah Martin Chief political correspondent

25, Aug, 2021 @5:30 PM

Article image
Australia's Covid vaccine rollout in aged care labelled a 'shemozzle'
‘Our prime minister should have given his jab to a nurse,’ co-founder of advocacy group says

Melissa Davey

01, Apr, 2021 @11:21 PM

Article image
NSW complains about lack of Covid vaccine rollout details from federal government
Health minister Brad Hazzard says he was not told which aged care facilities in the state are being vaccinated or of plans to use the ADF for distribution

Christopher Knaus

03, Mar, 2021 @2:49 AM

Article image
Hundreds of Australia’s aged care residents will die of Covid because of government failure, expert warns
Royal commission told coronavirus is ‘worst disaster that is still unfolding before my eyes’, the government failed to develop a response plan, and some care homes are cutting staff

Elias Visontay

12, Aug, 2020 @9:05 AM

Article image
Scott Morrison moves to ramp up Covid vaccine rollout and opens access to 40-year-olds
Prime minister names senior army officer to head vaccination taskforce after national cabinet and likens rollout to turning back asylum seeker boats

Paul Karp

04, Jun, 2021 @6:10 AM

Article image
‘Not their fault’: aged care sector says Covid vaccine mandate won’t fix government’s ‘failed’ rollout
Vaccines will be made compulsory for aged care workers but industry says staff have had trouble accessing jabs

Christopher Knaus

29, Jun, 2021 @3:12 AM

Article image
Covid outbreaks threaten 34 aged care facilities across NSW
The resurgence of the virus highlights low vaccination rates among aged care workers who were initially due to be vaccinated by Easter

Christopher Knaus

17, Aug, 2021 @5:30 PM

Article image
Aged care minister questioned over sector’s vaccine rollout failures as outbreak grows– as it happened
Minister Richard Colbeck comes under fire over aged care failures after outbreak in two Melbourne homes. This blog is now closed

Mostafa Rachwani (now) and Amy Remeikis (earlier)

01, Jun, 2021 @9:28 AM

Article image
Fact check: is aged care coping ‘extremely well’ with Omicron as Morrison government claims?
Experts respond to Coalition frontbenchers’ comments on the Covid death toll and booster rollout in nursing homes

Melissa Davey Medical editor

08, Feb, 2022 @1:31 AM