Article Written by Stephen Lunn, Social Affairs Editor, The Australian on 3 March, 2020
The elderly will be particularly at risk in the event of a widespread outbreak of the coronavirus, with aged-care homes unable to cope, a nurses’ group has warned.
The Nurses Professional Association of Queensland is also worried aged-care nurses have received no specific training or advice from the government on how to handle the coronavirus.
“Our members are concerned about the ability of residential aged-care facilities to control communicable disease,” NPAQ president Phill Tsingos said. “Their airconditioning is not set up like it is in a hospital to contain bugs and they don’t have all the personal protective equipment such as goggles, masks and full length aprons like a hospital would have.
“Our nurses worry for the residents, who are frail and vulnerable. And they worry about their own exposure, and if they get ill from the virus who will be available to look after people in the nursing home?
“Our standard training gives us an understanding about how to handle an airborne virus in an aged-care facility, but coronavirus is a new situation and we are really looking for specific advice from the government about what to do to best contain it.”
The warning came as federal Health Minister Greg Hunt announced all residential aged-care or health workers returning from Italy or South Korea should not go to work for 14 days.
“This is an additional level of protection which has been advised by the chief health and medical officers and accepted by the Australian government,” Mr Hunt said.
It also came as the US announced an outbreak of coronavirus in a Washington state nursing home had led to the death of one resident, and four others and a staff member had tested positive. It was the second coronavirus death in the US.
Patricia Sparrow, chief executive of Aged and Community Services Australia, a peak body representing church and charitable providers, said robust disease control and infection control measures were already in place.
“We work with a vulnerable group, so every flu season we need to be ready to support these people,” Ms Sparrow said. “It is an evolving situation and we are constantly liaising with health authorities.”
The aged-care sector is set to receive a briefing from the Health Department this week about the impact of the coronavirus, during which it is expected issues such as protective clothing will be raised.
Leading Aged Services Australia chief executive Sean Rooney agreed the sector had comprehensive infection control strategies, which were being updated as required.
“Residential aged-care homes participated in a national review of infection controls following the impact of influenza in 2017, which included a particular focus on staffing provision and protocols, to contain the spread of viruses and maintain an adequate workforce,” Mr Rooney said.
“Providers are accustomed to dealing with influenza each winter and are adding to these protocols through the updated COVID-19 guidance from the Department of Health.”