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Prof. Alison McMillan’s opinion on Covid vaccination in aged care sector

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The Australian Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has always focused on increasing protection levels across our entire community, with the highest priority being our most vulnerable people. The response within our aged care sector has involved tens of thousands of aged care workers, their employers and senior Australians themselves to ensure they are as safe as possible.

Australians saw firsthand the devastating impact on residential aged care facilities during Victoria’s second wave outbreak, but that was before we could count on a safe and effective vaccine – approved for use by the Therapeutic Goods Administration – to protect us.

Our aged care sector has responded and the extraordinary efforts of residential aged care workers and providers to prepare for, prevent, and better respond to outbreaks deserves considerable recognition and gratitude as well.

What we have seen during this most recent outbreak in parts of New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland, is a very different impact on our aged care facilities.

At the peak of Victoria’s outbreak, which occurred just over one year ago, there were 6,767 active cases and COVID-19 outbreaks were affecting 216 residential aged care facilities. Tragically, there were 678 deaths among aged care residents.

In comparison, up to 25 August 2021, there had been 38 outbreaks in residential aged care facilities during the current outbreak in New South Wales, and just 12 of these included positive cases among the residents. In total, residents have accounted for 92 COVID-19 cases and 74 have been among residential aged care staff. While the loss of anyone to COVID-19 is tragic, there has only been 6 confirmed COVID deaths among aged care residents.

The comparison is stark. And it underlines that the critical learnings were taken from Victoria and applied, in an effective response, across the entire aged care sector.

The Australian Government undertook several independent reviews of the outbreaks in Victoria, and these reviews have contributed important insights to better prepare residential aged care providers workers and government to reduce the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak and manage outbreaks if they occur.

While the most important change has been the approval and availability of COVID-19 vaccines, many more measures are being taken to ensure senior Australians are better protected.

Specialised Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) nurses are now working in each residential aged care facility, ensuring best practice in preventing and controlling all outbreaks not just COVID-19.

All residential aged care services with an active case of COVID-19 receive support from the government including: a dedicated case manager; access to personal protective equipment; testing; and access to surge workforce and financial supplementation.

But it is the impact of COVID-19 vaccination on the safety of aged care residents which cannot be understated.

As at 25 August, 164,692 residents in Australia’s residential aged care facilities had received a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine (88.4%) and 156,574 had received a second dose (84%).

Across all our aged care facilities, around 88% of residents have consented to receive the jab – and in NSW it’s 90%.

In the general population, very few vaccinated people who have contracted COVID 19 have required hospitalisation or intensive care support. Fewer still have died of the virus.

Based on the best medical advice and recommendations from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, our National Cabinet agreed to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for residential aged care workers – full time, part time and casual.

Commonwealth Health officials have been working closely with state and territory officials on the design and implementation of this decision.

We know there is a risk of transmission with other workers, volunteers or visitors coming into contact with residents or staff so we strongly encourage anyone entering a residential aged care facility to be vaccinated.

The pandemic is not over, but I am confident that the lessons learned and the measures in place now mean we have much stronger protections in place to minimise the potential impact of COVID-19 on senior Australians living in residential aged care.

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