26 Jul 2020

Victoria: 459 new Covid-19 cases, soaring aged care spread

2:13 pm on 26 July 2020

More than 500 elderly residents in 38 care centres are battling Covid-19 in the Australian state of Victoria, and elderly people make up significant numbers in the daily death toll figures.

A medical worker speaks to people queueing for coronavirus testing at The Royal Melbourne Hospital on 16 July.

A medical worker speaks to people queueing for coronavirus testing at The Royal Melbourne Hospital on 16 July. Photo: AFP

The state's Premier Daniel Andrews says there have been 10 deaths connected to the virus in the past 24 hours, and 459 new cases recorded.

It's the country's deadliest day since the outbreak started, with Victoria counting the vast bulk of cases, and bout 13 per cent of the active cases are in elderly people.

The state is trying to rein in major outbreaks on several fronts - clusters of cases connected to public housing towers, several workplaces and a school in the city's west, but there are fears an explosion in nursing home cases could be difficult to halt.

Of the 536 active cases linked to aged care, Premier Daniel Andrews said roughly half were residents, while the others were staff and close contacts.

Coronavirus has now affected 38 aged care locations, with the worst outbreaks at three facilities: St Basil's Home for the Aged in Fawkner, Estia Health in Ardeer and Menarock Life aged care in Essendon.

The Menarock Life aged care facility, in Melbourne, is one of the worst Covid-19 clusters.

The Menarock Life aged care facility, in Melbourne, is one of the worst Covid-19 clusters. Photo: AFP

The combination of elderly, vulnerable residents who are unable to socially distance from those who care for them has created the deadly scenario that has seen a quadrupling of cases since the start of the month.

"It is incredibly difficult to keep this out of aged care settings, particularly with such a transient and flexible and often insecure workforce," Andrews said.

Workers have been brought in from interstate to help the Victorian efforts because of workers being furloughed due to testing positive to Covid-19, or being close contacts of people who had.

But it has led to stories of disorganisation and health guidelines not being followed, with claims coronavirus-positive residents were being allowed to mix with others at St Basil's in Fawkner.

Visitors restricted, face coverings mandatory

On Wednesday night, new restrictions were introduced in Melbourne for aged care, drug and alcohol, homeless and disability support centres, along with short-term accommodation and assistance dwellings.

Visitor limits were introduced, and all guests are now required to wear masks or face coverings.

A major concern for authorities is staff working at multiple sites.

Andrews said his Government was working closely with the Federal Government, aged care providers and unions to try and stop the practice for the time being.

"That obviously doesn't eliminate, but significantly reduces, the risk of the virus being transmitted by staff from one setting to another," he said

Earlier in the week, the Premier revealed 90 per cent of Victorians who ended up testing positive did not self-isolate when they first started feeling sick. About half flouted the rules as they waited for their test results to return.

But he also acknowledged that in many cases, these were shift workers who lived pay cheque to pay cheque.

The State Government introduced a one-off $1,500 payment to workers who were self-isolating because of testing positive or because they were the close contact of someone who had.

A separate $300 payment will also be made to workers who are self-isolating while waiting for Covid test results to be returned.

Andrews says hospitals can handle current levels

People wearing face masks are seen at the entrance of the Menarock Life aged care facility, where a cluster of infections has been reported.  There are Covid-19 cases linked to 40 aged care facilities in Victoria.

People wearing face masks at the entrance of the Menarock Life aged care facility, where a cluster of infections has been reported. Photo: AFP

All residents were evacuated to a private hospital from the Menarock Life Aged Care Centre after an outbreak this month, including those who didn't test positive.

But that outbreak posed "unique challenges", Colbeck said, and the Federal and State Governments are not taking the same approach with other clusters.

Instead, patients are transferred to hospital on a case-by-case basis.

"Moving frail, aged people out of nursing homes is not a good thing to do unless you absolutely have to," Andrews said earlier in the week.

Some doctors disagree, including the head of the Australian Medical Association, and say more needs to be done to protect the elderly in nursing homes.

With Victoria now dealing with nearly 4,000 coronavirus cases across the state, the Premier and Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton are bracing for an increase in hospitalisations in the weeks ahead.

"I just want to assure all Victorians, we have bought up big," Andrews said.

"We have got adequate supplies of shields and masks and gowns and gloves. We have the sort of equipment that can turn any hospital bed into a high-dependency bed or an intensive care bed."

Andrews said staff numbers were "sufficient", but it would be the state's "biggest challenge" as more health workers became infected with coronavirus.

"That is why during the first wave we spent a lot of time and effort training up additional staff, making sure that we had that a secondary workforce that we could fall back on," he said.

How are governments responding to the crisis?

People wearing face masks in Melbourne on 20 July.

Face masks have been made compulsory in Melbourne. Photo: AFP

On Saturday, it was announced the Commonwealth government and Victorian governments would set up a response centre to coordinate efforts to curb the worsening situation.

It will be managed by the state and central government emergency management organisations, with input from the Australian Defence Force, federal and state governments, the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commissioner's team, clinical leaders and geriatric support.

"Its tasks will include quality control workforce provisions, prevention of outbreaks, rapid response, supporting provider communications to families and others," Hunt said.

"That is a very important step forward in helping coordinate, and helping to ensure a rapid response where these cases are occurring."

Earlier this month, the Federal Government made masks compulsory for aged care workers in the lockdown zone and said it was distributing 750,000 masks, face shields and gowns within Victoria.

Since February 1.35 million items of personal protective equipment already supplied to Victorian aged care services.


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