The federal health department has contacted aged care providers urging them to use active “containment processes” to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, known as COVID-19. Authories suggested measures such as hand washing and cough etiquette, and to be prepared to identify and isolate cases to “ensure that the other residents are safe”.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Wednesday the threat to the elderly was the federal government’s “primary focus” in working with states and territories to prepare for a potential human-to-human coronavirus outbreak in Australia.
“We know that with the flu season in Australia, that has, not uniquely but overwhelmingly, had its most significant impacts on our older population,” he told reporters in Canberra.
Aged and Community Services Australia chief executive Patricia Sparrow, representing the non-profit sector, said her members had “some of the best disease control measures out there, because we are dealing with a vulnerable group every day”.
“It’s important for families and friends to be really careful when visiting aged care and to stay away if unwell,” Ms Sparrow said.
“We’ve been providing advice and support to our members, including special briefing info provided by the department. Everyone should be careful and seek medical advice if unsure.”
A major aged care provider servicing the Chinese community is screening all visitors and staff at its residential facilities in Sydney, checking temperatures and denying entry to anyone deemed at risk of carrying the virus.
The Sisters Of Our Lady Of China placed one if its facilities into a three-week lock-down after Chinese New Year, and remains on “high alert”, spokeswoman Natasha Collis.
“If there are any issues, we send them for pathology and medical clearance to come back,” she said.
“One resident had flu-like symptoms and had been out at Chinese New Year celebrations in Strathfield and Burwood. She developed symptoms and we transferred her out for isolation and testing.”
The resident had since been cleared of carrying the coronavirus, Ms Collis said.
Ms Collis said one challenge was keeping protective gear like masks in stock, with other key items such as continence pads running low due to manufacturing challenges in Chinese factories, she said.
Leading Age Services Australia chief executive Sean Rooney said aged care residences and home care providers “are on high alert across the nation”.
“The health and wellbeing of both older Australians in care and the staff who look after them is paramount, with rigorous infection control protocols in place,” Mr Rooney said.
“Age care operators are being updated on vigilance and adherence to stringent infection containment procedures, which are part of the new Aged Care Standards.”
Residential care homes had updated infection controls after the 2017 flu season, he said, with “a particular focus on staffing provision and protocols, to contain the spread of viruses and maintain an adequate workforce”.
“It is also vital that family members and visitors are aware of the potential risk of bringing the coronavirus into aged care homes because of the vulnerability of older Australians,” he said.
Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Melissa Cunningham is The Age’s health reporter.