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Rest homes are now looking at buying their own Covid-19 testing kits after the Ministry of Health refused to test new admissions.
On Monday a fourth rest home was named as a cluster of 10 or more cases, this time in Auckland.
And a third death was revealed at one of those clusters, involving residents from the Rosewood Rest Home in Christchurch.
The Aged Care Association, representing 600 rest homes, asked the Ministry of Health 10 days ago for all new admissions to rest homes to be tested for the virus.
Association chief executive Simon Wallace said the answer was no.
"There is unused capacity. The government have said that they can test 40,000 tests a week. All we're asking for is 700 a week. That's the number of resident admissions we have across the country into rest homes.
"We don't think that that's an unreasonable position to ask for 700 out of 40,000."
The latest deaths showed just how vulnerable the elderly were, and if there was no change in the stance of the ministry, rest homes would try to source their own tests, he said.
"Our call around testing, we've made that call in response to what families are asking for, in response to what our membership is asking for, to show confidence in the industry and demonstrate confidence in the industry. Unfortunately, our requests have fallen on deaf ears."
The three elderly people from Rosewood to have died so far were out of a group of 33 confirmed or probable cases connected to the rest home, made up of 13 residents, 18 staff and two close contacts of staff.
The Ministry of Health said given the age and underlying health conditions of the residents, there was a chance of further serious illness or death.
Wallace said his thoughts went out to the families and to Rosewood's owner.
"I've talked to the owner of the rest home and he's obviously really upset with the situation and he's working as best he can to engage and cooperate with the DHB. Obviously the safety and wellbeing of the residents is paramount, but this is also his business as well. So it's sad on all counts."
Canterbury District Health Board said given the restriction on visitors to Rosewood's dementia unit where the outbreak occurred, it was highly likely a staff member brought the virus in.
Wallace said as well as new admissions, staff at rest homes should also be tested for the virus.
The kaiwhakahaere of the Nurses Organisation, Kerri Nuku, said mandatory testing of staff was something her union would need to discuss before giving the green light to it.
Health workers were already taking extraordinary steps to keep residents and patients safe, she said.
"When these nurses go home from work every night, some of them are sleeping out in the garage in the car, because they don't want to cross contaminate with the family, or they're using a separate bathroom or something. So I think it's not because people are not being cautious."
Nuku said some DHBs were still reluctant to give staff access to personal protective equipment and she was glad to hear the Ministry of Health was considering whether it should take over from them in handing it out instead.
"Because it's so patchy, I think our nurses will be reassured if somebody gets the flow down to their services right. If that means taking it back to the ministry, then so be it, but our nurses want to feel that the supply when they ask for it, that we should still have access to that PPE gear."
Canterbury DHB confirmed yesterday that a staff member at Burwood Hospital, where the Rosewood residents were being cared for, had caught the virus and was now recovering at home.
It said following contact tracing, a small number of fellow staff were also self isolating at home.
It said all staff caring for the residents were wearing PPE and it was now investigating how the staff member caught the virus.
The Ministry of Health said testing is just one way of keeping rest home residents and staff safe along with good infection prevention control and access to PPE.
'This is a huge area of vulnerability'
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says there is work to be done to ensure rest homes are prepared to deal with Covid-19.
Ardern told Morning Report she would take advice about testing new patients.
"No one should be purchasing testing kits. We have the capacity and the supplies to test well over what we are testing every day," she said.
"There is currently as I understand isolation of every new resident going into a rest home."
There were several hundred individuals going into rest homes in any given week, she said.
"I'm going to sit down with our experts and say, 'do we think that isolation is the best as a testing regime?'."
Three of the five Covid-19 deaths to date were patients from a Christchurch rest home.
"What we do need is a protocol across the country that is managing new rest home patients because we must ensure that we are not seeing extended infection in our aged care facilities," Ardern said.
"We need rigorous controls."
But she said staff in aged care facilities were more likely to pose a risk.
"Rather than new patients being the vector for new infections in our aged care facilities, we are seeing by and large - through often no fault of their own - it's those working at our aged care facilities that present risks."
She said there needed to be protocols that looked out for patients and staff.
Providing personal protective gear was one step but it must also be properly used.
"There are checks and balance ... and I do think that there is more work to be done there."
District Health Boards have been asked to audit aged care facilities in their area.
"We know that New Zealand is not alone in this issue. You look at France, it's taken to separately reporting the deaths at aged care facilities.
"I want New Zealand to be a standout in every regard for the control and management of Covid and it has to mean also protecting our most vulnerable. And I know [for] the ministry, aged care facilities are top of the mind, and there is more rigour that we want to put in."
Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker told Morning Report about half of fatalities in Europe and the UK had been in aged care facilities, so rest homes should be a critical focus.
"It's absolutely critical to protect them."
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