Aged care workers' inspiring efforts to keep older Australians safe despite the challenges of COVID-19

08 May 2020

In presenting the findings of its national Aged Care COVID-19 Survey, the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) is today acknowledging the inspiring efforts of aged care workers across the country to keep older Australians, especially those living in nursing homes, safe, despite experiencing significant challenges presented by the COVID-19 outbreak in Australia. 

The survey, conducted from 15 April to 6 May, aimed to assess aged care workers’ sense of their employer’s preparedness to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and the strategies that had been put in place as well as identify the key challenges and major gaps in the aged care sector’s response to COVID-19 from the perspective of those providing direct care to older Australians.

A total of 1,980 registered and enrolled nurses, personal care workers and ancillary staff, from a range of employment areas, including for-profit, not-for-profit and government aged care providers, participated in the national survey, with the highest participation rate coming from the not-for-profit sector (44%).  

ANMF Federal Secretary, Annie Butler, acknowledged that Australia has done an excellent job to date in containing the COVID-19 pandemic across states and territories, but said the ANMF continues to have concerns about the preparedness of the aged care sector to deal with outbreaks of the disease.

“Our concern is due both to the chronic understaffing and widespread lack of skills in the sector, so clearly identified by the Aged Care Royal Commission and the increasingly well-known risks for older people from COVID-19,” Ms Butler said today.   

“We recognise that the Government has provided considerable assistance to the sector since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in Australia but we have been unsure as to whether this assistance has converted to the additional staff, skills and resources required to prepare for, and deal with, an outbreak of COVID-19. So, we conducted this survey to find out what’s happening on the ground.”

A snapshot of COVID-19 survey found:

  • Up to 80% reported no increases in care staff at their aged care facility to prepare for a COVID-19 outbreak;
  • 19% working in for-profit, 17% in not-for-profit and 13% in government-run aged care facilities reported staff cuts since the beginning of March;
  • 77% reported their employers had recently updated or implemented infection control procedures for staff;
  • Less than 40% said their aged care facility was prepared for a COVID-19 outbreak;
  • Less than 30% said their aged care facility had enough supplies of PPE;
  • 53% said they were willing to work more shifts at their aged care facility during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A concerning element of these results is the reports that staffing has not been increased and, in some cases, has actually been reduced since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in Australia, across the aged care sector, despite a majority of workers reporting that they would be willing to work additional hours to help out during the pandemic,” Ms Butler said.

“Perhaps even more concerning is that once again, aged care workers are reporting significant levels of stress, pressure and a lack of support as the sector grapples to combat COVID-19. This is while they continue to be the ‘glue’ that is holding the system together. A fact that has been unacknowledged by the government and the sector since the pandemic began.”

The major issues of concern are captured in comments from the survey’s participants:

  1. “I TRULY, TRULY hope it doesn’t make it into the facility. I fear short staffing. It occurs anyway (working short), as [we] can’t get replacements. Carers not allowed to have bottles of sanitiser on trolleys during pad/continence night rounds. Means only hand washing and a wall sanitiser left. Not as used as time poor. So infection control is now compromised.”
  2. “They stated that if we suspect [COVID-19] in the facility, that we would ask for a test but not put precautions in place until we have a positive result which I feel vulnerable being exposed to the risk of Coronavirus …[W]hy should staff have to be asked to attend to residents as normal without being provided with adequate PPE or told off if we use PPE without a Coronavirus confirmed case? I understand there is limited supplies on PPE, but I still believe that we aren’t being given a fair opportunity to protect ourselves and our other residents that we have to care for.”
  3. “We are working short staffed now. My concern is if we have an outbreak, the staffing numbers will be reduced even more and our residents are going to suffer.”
  4. “I don't think employers are being adequately advised by the government. They'll take minimum measures required by government rather than look at overseas trends. The main issue with aged care from a carer’s perspective is a lack of staffing. This guarantees that carers will not be able to provide perfect care. Standards inevitably slide. This is why there's so much hidden neglect in Aged Care.”
  5. “I would want to help out in any way to nurse any patients and ease the pressure on permanent staff.”
  6. “We don't feel valued. Feel like they don't care about our safety. Poor communication and lack of direction on how things need to be put in place More and more responsibility assigned every day, day-by-day workload increasing, high chance of forgetting things/making mistakes. It's overwhelming.”
  7. “Exhausting when you are working short, not only registered staff hours but also care staff hours. We are compromising our health, our ability to complete workload which is horrendous at any time. We have extra workload with COVID-19 and residents emotional needs - sad and missing families.”
  8. “I work by myself with forty residents on a night shift. Not only do I care for my residents, I am expected to do their laundry, clean my area, cook for the residents and many other tasks.”
  9. “Since March I’ve been told I wasn’t allowed to come to work and haven’t been offered any shifts as I’m a casual and also work at another institution. They said that it’s their policy to not allow staff that work elsewhere to work there. I had all my upcoming shifts cancelled and haven’t had any work since March.”
  10. “We have been in total lockdown for months now. No family or visitors. Only if family bypass management and go higher up to CEO. We have palliative residents and family can only come in for a couple of hours. They are so grief stricken not being able to be with loved ones. When staff complain they are disciplined very harshly.”

ANMF media release authorised by Annie Butler, ANMF Federal Secretary. 1/365 Queen St, Melbourne.

The ANMF, with over 280,000 members, is the industrial and professional voice for nurses, midwives and carers in Australia.

ANMF Media inquiries: Richard Lenarduzzi 0411 254 390

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