3 Mar 2020

Rest home worries over Coronavirus: 'They are ignoring us'

8:39 pm on 3 March 2020

People in rest homes could be in dire circumstances if the coronavirus hits and they don't get enough back up from district health boards, says a retirement village chief executive.

People over 80 have an almost 15 percent fatality rate from the disease according to some measures, with those over 65 also much more vulnerable than the rest of the population.

The Aged Cared Association and the Retirement Villages Association said they were not getting enough support from the government and district health boards as they made plans for how to deal with the virus.

Kerikeri Retirement Village chief executive Hillary Sumpter said one of the scariest things about a possible outbreak was losing staff.

"A lot of our people are at hospital level care which means they need two people to assist them in their daily living at all times. So we would have people in very dire circumstances if we didn't have staff," Sumpter said.

DHBs should release some of their stockpile of masks and other protective equipment so staff could minimise the risk of catching or spreading the virus, she said.

Read more about the Covid-19 coronavirus:

Aged Care Association chief executive Simon Wallace said the centres also needed a back-up plan for what to do if there were too many sick people to care for.

"Coronavirus would be on a level that we have neither the staff or the infrastructure to deal with," he said.

But he was frustrated with the lack of direction or support from the DHBs and the government.

He had tried unsuccessfully to engage with DHBs and could not get a straight answer about how they would help out, he said.

"They are ignoring us," Wallace told Checkpoint. "This issue was raised by me at a national level meeting between the aged residential care sector and DHBs.

"I wrote to the DHBs on February 25 and I only heard yesterday from the DHBs that individual approaches from individual DHBs was how they would be dealing with this.

"And that's been very piecemeal, that's been very patchy."

'This is not business as usual'

The aged care sector needed a national-level plan, Wallace said.

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Photo: 123rf.com

"That's about the rest home sector working with the government on a plan… where we can access practical things like a stockpile of equipment. That's masks, surgical gowns, it's assistance with our staffing. We're not necessarily resourced to deal with a big outbreak."

Discussions around such a plan had not happened, he said.

"We've seen today a case in America with a rest home where people have died, and it has been linked to coronavirus.

"We are well-prepared and well-set up to deal with an influenza outbreak, or a norovirus outbreak. But this is not business as usual with coronavirus, this is new ground and we've seen the government close the border to some countries.

"I'm raising the alarm bells today because we want to be prepared and ready. I've not had the confidence that the District Health Boards are prepared.

"This is a global viral outbreak and that requires a national level response. We're prepared and ready to talk to those government agencies - it's a far more effective way of minimising and managing the situation rather than having to deal with a whole lot of 20 individual DHBs."

Wallace told Checkpoint family members of those in aged care were calling rest home managers and nursing staff, wanting to know what sort of plans were in place.

"Only today have I heard from the minister. I've been asking for a meeting with the Associate Minister of Health Jenny Salesa, who's responsible for older people. Only today after we brought this matter into the public have I had a response.

"That shouldn't be the way. The aged residential care sector as a mainstream part of health, we provide a valuable service, we have 35,000 beds and we need to be regarded as equal partners with the District Health Boards. That's not the way we've been treated through this."

'There is just a complete lockdown'

Diana Isaac Retirement Village resident Graham Tate, 85, said the virus was on the mind of many people there because they knew they were in the dangerous age group.

He felt some reassurance being in a village run by the large organisation, Ryman, because it had lots of resources and communication was good, he said.

There had been incidents of norovirus before that meant residents knew what to do, he said.

"There is just a complete lockdown. The independent living people don't go into the main centres. Those in the main centres are confined to their rooms," Tate said.

In a press conference today, Dr Bloomfield said he had asked all DHBs this morning to include aged care facilities in their coronavirus plan and to make sure they kept in touch with them.

"Asked them to ensure that they were working with all their aged residential care providers in their area and including them in their planning for any further responses to Covid-19 so they are also part of the plan."

He said people aged over 65 or who had pre-existing medical conditions were most at-risk of severe illness from Covid-19.

"We'll be wanting to make sure we're protecting those people as much as we can," he said.

He said the ministry was considering providing those people access to a free flu vaccine, and although it would not protect people against getting coronavirus it would help against flu and therefore against getting a more severe case.

At the same briefing, Capital & Coast DHB clinical leader for infection services Michelle Balm said there were several things that were done every year to protect against flu that would also be useful against Covid-19.

"Those involve early recognition of any person who might be affected by Covid-19, making sure that there's not transmission to other residents and making sure that staff know what to do to protect themselves and other residents.

"They would be the starting point and the first thing we have to do is have regional discussions with our aged and residential care facilities to go over the plans that they have in place already and adapt these for Covid-19."

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