COVID-19: Aged Care Take Note of Answers

I rise to address this question, because it is important and, as Senator Bilyk said, there are people around the nation who are concerned about older Australians in this COVID pandemic. The pleasing thing to report is that amongst aged-care recipients in the ACT there have been no cases. In the Northern Territory there have been no cases. In Queensland there has been one. In South Australia there have been none. In Tasmania there has been one. In Western Australia there have been none. New South Wales has had more. And Victoria clearly has a high case load.

But it’s important to note that, of 208 residential services where there’ve been outbreaks, 183 of them—the vast majority—have been in Victoria, and 97 per cent nationally have had no outbreak. Why is that important in the context of this discussion? Senator Polley highlighted during her contribution a concern that a nurse saw piles of PPE in rubbish bags out the back of an aged-care home. What that points to is that PPE was provided, and the fact that there were piles of it means it was provided in quantity and, importantly, the staff obviously were following the protocols requiring frequent changing of the PPE. So there’s actually a contradiction in the argument, because their own comments have highlighted that PPE, in quantity, was provided and that training was adequate—that people were following the procedures—and the issue here was the waste removal service.

The other point I would make when it comes to understanding the importance of the size of the community outbreak is: look at the hospitals and healthcare workers in Victoria. The state chief health officer in Victoria has now conceded that the majority of healthcare workers who have been infected with COVID-19 have been infected in the workplace. So, while in Australia 1,817 aged-care residents nationwide have contracted COVID, 2,563 healthcare workers in Victoria have contracted COVID. We are talking here about a younger, better trained, better equipped population of Australians in Victoria who have contracted COVID. These are people in professional healthcare environments who’ve been provided with PPE in accordance with state government and health department requirements, who’ve received training and who have the back-up staff for when people have to self-isolate—and there’s a large case load of health workers who have been fronting up day after day and then having to go into isolation when colleagues have become infected. But, even in that workplace, we’ve seen a high rate of infection.

What that points to is that COVID-19 is a highly infectious disease and, when you have a high degree of community transmission, even the best of protocols and the best of procedures in a healthcare environment have not stopped 2,563 professional healthcare workers in the Victorian health system from contracting COVID. So to attack the minister for aged care for the outcomes we’re seeing in aged-care homes neglects the fact that there is a higher case load of infection among professional health workers, who have all the PPE they need and follow the protocols, and that’s because of the infectious nature of the disease.

If you look at the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States, a biological safety level ranging from 1 to 4 is assigned to various diseases. An airborne transmissional disease like COVID-19 is normally assigned a biosafety level of 3, or BSL3. They say that for testing you could perhaps roll that back to 2. But, in an environment where aerosols are being created because of the interaction between people, it is highly infectious. Where community transmission has been allowed to grow to such a size, the situation in the health environment in Victoria shows that the aged-care system nationwide is doing well.