Australia’s aged care homes urged to speed up fourth-dose Covid boosters as outbreaks and deaths rise

by Christopher Knaus
Federal ministers Mark Butler and Anika Wells warn providers with low vaccination rates will have to explain themselves

Ministers Mark Butler and Anika Wells have told aged care providers to act “with a sense of urgency” and speed up their fourth-dose Covid vaccinations as the sector continues to grapple with almost 700 outbreaks and a growing death toll.

The aged care ministers have also warned providers with low vaccination rates they would be required to explain themselves and show how they would turn around sluggish booster rates.

The latest health department data shows 694 active outbreaks in aged care facilities, with 3,603 residents and 1,913 staff testing positive.

In the first half of 2022, more aged care residents have died than the first two years of the pandemic combined.

Providers have reported 1,643 reported deaths so far in 2022, compared to 686 in 2020 and 231 in 2021.

The health department has continued to run vaccination clinics at aged care facilities – both to administer fourth-dose Covid boosters and influenza vaccines – as well as distributing the anti-viral Lagevrio, delivering about 48,134 treatment courses since February.

Butler, the new health and aged care minister, and Wells, the aged care minister, penned a joint letter to providers on Thursday, urging them to seek additional and faster ways to have their residents vaccinated, both with fourth-dose Covid boosters and influenza.

“We write to you with a sense of urgency to ensure the protection of your residents and workers from the risk of severe illness, hospitalisation or death from Covid-19 in the coming months,” they wrote. “As a residential aged care provider, you are required under the Aged Care Quality Standards to ensure effective infection prevention and control to safeguard those in your care.”

Providers were told to book in vaccination clinics at the earliest opportunity. But they were also warned they “must not wait” for those clinics, and instead seek vaccinations through primary care for any resident that is eligible.

“It is critical that you act now to ensure the delivery of Covid-19 and influenza vaccinations without delay, and where possible to co-administer both vaccines at the same time,” the ministers wrote. “You must not wait. You must schedule your Covid-19 and influenza vaccination clinics at the earliest opportunity.

“If you have residents who are eligible to receive their Covid-19 winter dose or influenza vaccination before a scheduled clinic, you are strongly encouraged to facilitate vaccination through a primary care provider.”

Poor-performing providers were also put on notice. Any aged care provider with low vaccination rates would be asked to explain itself to the health department, the letter warned.

“The Department of Health, as a matter of urgency, is contacting facilities yet to report on resident winter dose vaccinations, or where reported vaccination rates are low, to seek an explanation and put in place measures to facilitate vaccination as a priority,” the ministers wrote. “The Covid-19 pandemic is not over and this winter presents ongoing challenges to safeguard the residents and workers in your care.”

About 1.65 million of the 3.1 million eligible Australians have received a fourth-dose booster since it was recommended for those aged 65 or above and residents in aged or disability care in March.

The health department does not publish a specific figure for fourth doses administered in aged care. But the data does show that the overwhelming majority (94%) have had at least three doses.

The aged care industry peak body, Aged & Community Care Providers Association (ACCPA), said it believed the Covid booster and influenza vaccination programs were in progress and working well overall. The association also said aged care homes were already working with GPs and pharmacists to ensure residents had ongoing access to booster shots and said it was “not receiving feedback of major concerns about this”.

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“The Department of Health has urged providers not to delay vaccinating unaffected staff and residents during outbreaks, so that we ensure the best level of protection we can,” the organisation’s interim chief executive, Paul Sadler, told the Guardian.

“Work is also under way to ensure facilities have enough personal protective equipment ahead of prospective Covid and influenza waves.”

Sadler said it was “vital” that the government urgently moved to address workforce shortfalls to avoid staff shortages and care interruptions, in the event of Covid and influenza outbreaks.

“ACCPA is concerned that our surge workforce capacity is very limited,” he said. “All Australians should remain vigilant and take responsibility to reduce the risk of contracting influenza. If people are feeling unwell or suspect they may have been in high-risk settings for Covid or influenza, they should not visit friends or loved ones in aged care homes.”