More than 500 elderly Australians have died in aged care with Covid-19 during the first few weeks of 2022. With Omicron plaguing nursing homes, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, and Coalition frontbenchers have been out defending their management of the crisis.
Here are some of their recent claims that Guardian Australia has fact-checked, including comments on the booster rollout, the reasons for low booster uptake, and how the sector is faring as staff report atrocious conditions and burnout.
Most of those who died in aged care with Covid-19 were in their ‘last days of life’
The health minister, Greg Hunt, said of those who died in aged care from or with Covid, 60% were palliative and “in the absolute last days of their lives”. It is a statement Hunt repeated in subsequent press conferences.
A spokesman for Hunt said the 60% figure is based on data provided by the states and territories on lives lost in residential aged care residences since July 2021.
However, an aged care situation report published by Leading Age Services Australia on Wednesday said: “Further clarification of these statements is needed.”
The Leading Age Services Australia chief executive, Sean Rooney, said this was because palliative care is care provided to someone with an advanced disease and terminal prognosis where the main goal of treatment is quality of life.
“This is not the same as people who are in the last days of their life. People can be palliative for years,” he said.
Families are a barrier to aged care residents receiving booster shots
Hunt told the ABC on 3 February that: “My gentle message to families is, please, please, please, allow your residents, your families, your loved ones, to have that booster, to provide that consent.” Hunt previously said: “We know that some families have, for whatever their reasons, not provided consent for their loved ones to take up the booster.”
Rooney said the number of cases where this was relevant was “quite small”.
The director of the Australian Health Services Research Institute at the University of Wollongong, Prof Kathy Eagar, told the Sydney Morning Herald on Friday: “Families are not the problem. The vaccine booster program in aged care has been poorly implemented.”
There had been reports of people struggling to get boosters for their family. The director of Aged Care Matters, Dr Sarah Russell, said the role of families not consenting had been overplayed. “I know a family member who gave consent in early December,” she said. “She is still waiting for her mother to be vaccinated.”
Russell said a comprehensive survey of aged care providers and residents is needed to determine the main factors contributing to low booster rates.
The aged care sector is performing ‘extremely well’
The minister for senior Australians, Richard Colbeck, said on 2 February that the aged care sector was performing “extremely well” despite the Omicron outbreak. He said in 2020 there were 28,000 Covid cases in Australia, of which 2,051 were in aged care [7.2%], but of the 1.8m Covid cases as of 2 February, 10,500 [0.58%] were in aged care.
Rooney said aged care staff and management had done extremely well, and “it’s absolutely appropriate to acknowledge this whenever we talk about the current situation”.
“But the impact on the sector has still been devastating. And there is no doubt that there would have been fewer cases and fewer deaths if we had had enough RATs for daily screening of everyone, access to PCR tests where needed, access to surge workforce as promised and reliable access to PPE.”
The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation said the results of its national survey, published on 1 February, found that nurses and carers were still being forced to pay for their own rapid antigen tests (RATs) to go to work. This was despite Hunt announcing on 15 August that RATs would be available to aged care homes.
The survey also found 20% of nurses said they were planning to leave their position within the next 12 months and 38% within the next one to five years.
According to Russell, only 668 of 2,704 private aged care homes had received RATs by 7 January. “This was a total abrogation of the government’s duty,” she said.
With nurses protesting in Canberra on Tuesday morning over woeful staffing, and the defence minister, Peter Dutton, announcing on Monday 1,700 defence troops would be sent into aged care homes in an attempt to fill staffing gaps, the sector was clearly struggling.
Australia is doing well compared to Canada
Scott Morrison told the ABC’s Sabra Lane on 2 February: “Right now, outbreaks in Canada in aged care facilities are 13 times higher than they are in Australia, and they have the same vaccination rate as us.”
The federal government’s weekly aged care report now also includes data from Canada to draw a comparison. The latest report, published on Friday night, said: “By comparison, Canada has experienced over 11 times the number of deaths in care homes than Australia as at 4 February 2022.”
Prof Alexandra Martiniuk, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Sydney and adjunct professor of epidemiology at the University of Toronto, said Canada has had much larger waves of Covid in the past two years compared to Australia.
But the elderly in Canadian and Australian aged care residences were probably not comparable, she said.
“Only the sickest of the elderly are in long-term or aged care in most Canadian provinces,” she said. “So the comparison needs to consider the population. Given more aged care is given in homes in Canada, those in residential facilities are likely to be much older and sicker, and therefore likely more susceptible to Covid-19 infection and severe outcomes and deaths.
“Canada also has had better and earlier access to RATs, anecdotally, than Australia.”
35,000 people in aged care have not had a booster
Hunt said during a press conference on 3 February that there were about 190,000 people in aged care, and of those, about 20,000 had either not had their second dose, or been vaccinated at all.
He said this left a pool of about 170,000 people eligible for their booster, and of those, 125,000 had received it. “So it’s about 35,000 that have not taken it up.”
Rooney said the government’s weekly report just gave the total number of doses delivered, making it impossible to ascertain booster rates from this.
“We noticed odd changes in this figure, including falls in some weeks,” he said. “It is not clear why this has fluctuated, but we expect it is a function of people entering and leaving care, and then data for new and departing residents being updated.”
From 4 January, the government began reporting a standalone residential aged care figure in its daily reports. This is stated in terms of number of people “fully vaccinated” or “partially vaccinated”. But the federal government definition of fully vaccinated is two doses, making it hard to ascertain booster figures.
Russell said if we accepted this figure of 35,000 residents who had not received the booster, 18.5% of all residents had not been boosted, which she said was concerning.
“The figures for how many residents have not received their booster shot are not public,” she said. “When Richard Colbeck was asked for this figure, he took the question on notice.”