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A specialist medical team built to handle humanitarian disasters is being sent to Victoria to try to stem the deadly spread of COVID-19 in more than 80 aged-care homes.
Nurses from Victorian hospitals, as well as from NSW and South Australia, are also joining the fight with hundreds of aged-care workers now coronavirus patients or close contacts.
Premier Daniel Andrews moved on Tuesday to suspend several types of elective surgery, freeing up hospital beds for aged-care residents caught up in outbreaks.
It followed days of negotiations with the federal government amid fears of staff shortages and warnings from providers about hospitals refusing to accept transfers of residents.
Unwell residents were evacuated from the virus-ridden Epping Gardens home on Tuesday, as distressed and angry relatives demanded answers from staff.
About 170 residents from several homes have already been moved to hospitals, and dozens more are expected to be moved imminently.
Four of the six Victorian deaths announced on Tuesday were linked to aged care, taking the death toll among nursing homes residents to 39.
With 769 active cases linked to aged-care homes, the federal government also provided an extra five million masks and 500,000 face shields for workers. Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said the AUSMAT team being sent to Victoria was the “SAS of the medical world”.
“They are the best of the best,” he said.
As the crisis escalated, Mr Andrews said on Tuesday he did not have confidence some aged-care providers were “able to provide the care that is appropriate to keep their residents safe”.
“We don’t run this sector, but the residents in these homes are all Victorians,” Mr Andrews said.
“My mother is in her mid-70s, with underlying health issues but she lives at home. Some of the stories we’ve seen are unacceptable and I wouldn’t want my mum in some of those places.”
A visibly emotional Mr Hunt, whose late father lived in a home, hit back, saying he would “not hear a word against” aged care staff.
“My father lived in one, yes. It’s a difficult decision for any family and it’s a difficult time. My father lived in one and we knew that that meant he was in the latest stages of his life,” Mr Hunt said on Tuesday.
“I cannot imagine better care that my family and my father could have got and I speak, I think, for hundreds of thousands of families around the country.”
“And the idea that our carers, that our nurses are not providing that care, I think, is a dangerous statement to make.”
Some federal government figures were frustrated by the state government’s delay in agreeing to suspend elective surgery and transfer residents from virus-affected homes.
Mr Hunt said it was “not acceptable” that aged-care provider Bupa had faced “extreme difficulty getting patients into public hospitals”.
“Where there are patients that need that support, they must be given it,” he said.
“There can be no excuses. The beds are available. The workforce is available.”
Bupa Aged Care clinical services director Maryann Curry said the company’s experience in Britain and Spain proved residents needed to be moved as soon as they were diagnosed.
“If the passage to hospital is not clear, we lose precious hours as this disease moves so quickly,” she said. “It is our view that keeping COVID-positive aged-care residents within the home will almost certainly result in them suffering more than is necessary.”
Leading Age Services Australia’s policy general manager Tim Hicks said Mr Andrews’ comment was “disappointing and hurtful” for providers and staff.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Victoria was facing a “very complex” issue.
“The standing down, necessarily, of many in that workforce has had a very significant disruption to the provision of care in those facilities,” he said. “The commonwealth has been working, including with other states, to ensure that we can plug those gaps wherever we possibly can.”
The Victorian Aged Care Response Centre, established at the weekend, is now co-ordinating efforts to transfer patients and bring in staff.
Mr Morrison said communication breakdowns with the families of residents were “terribly heartbreaking”.
“There is disruption and we would ask for patience,” he said. “But I understand that that patience is very hard to come by when you’re talking about a loved one who has been affected by COVID-19.” he said.
AGED CARE RESIDENTS NEGLECTED IN HORROR HOMES
Diabolical failings have been exposed in Melbourne’s coronavirus-plagued aged-care homes, with 84 separate outbreaks and more than 900 cases now linked to the sector.
The Herald Sun has been told some residents have been left sitting in their own faeces, malnourished and not cleaned for days.
As tensions mounted between state and federal governments on Tuesday, interventions at private facilities exposed a raft of damning allegations, including:
Faeces found in beds and patients left unfed for days at St Basil’s in Fawkner;
Staff at Epping Gardens Aged Care being forced to call triple-0 because there were only four of them on duty; and
Defence force personnel raising serious concerns for their safety after being deployed to help at Epping Gardens.
Some care-home residents also sat unwashed for days.
The Herald Sun has been told that at Kirkbrae Presbyterian Homes in Kilsyth, management was unable to provide vital details of staff and residents’ close contacts.
At a Dandenong care home, which has three residents in critical condition, a physiotherapist who worked with patients on every floor of the facility tested positive. There were last night 769 active cases and 39 deaths linked to aged-care homes.
The daughter of a resident at Epping Gardens said her mother had twice not been washed for stretches of four days, before being transferred to hospital on Tuesday.
Susan, who did not want her surname published, said her 67-year-old mother’s catheter had also not been cleaned for four days, leaving her at risk of infection.
“There’s a lot of people there who I think are even worse off than my mum, but they aren’t capable of communicating their problems,” she said.
“Others are too scared to say anything, because they fear that if they do they won’t get looked after properly.”
Susan said she believed management at her mother’s facility was too slow to respond to cases of coronavirus.
She also said she had seen staff flouting mandatory mask laws.
“I first raised the understaffing issues last week, and honestly, nothing has changed,” she said.
“The residents at mum’s facility are not getting attended to for their basic needs. This is not acceptable.”
ANDREWS NO FAN OF ROYAL COMMISSION BID
Daniel Andrews has brushed off calls for a royal commission into his state government’s widely criticised pandemic response.
The Herald Sun revealed the Australian Medical Association had called for a royal commission.
Asked on Tuesday if he would support that, MrAndrews dismissed the query.
“I am not focused on those matters,” he said. “They are entitled to their view. I am not focused on those matters.
“We are a long way away from those sorts of issues. I am more focused on doing everything we can to provide care to those that are sick, to have the best set of policies and the best public health response we possibly can have.”
Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien said the call for a royal commission was effectively “a vote of no-confidence in the Andrews government’s ability to handle this pandemic”.
He said while a royal commission would perform an important function, it would take years before a final report could be delivered.
“Victorians need answers now, not in two or three years’ time. When parliament meets next week, we expect the government to give Victorians answers,” he said.
“When ministers appear before (the) public accounts and estimates (committee), we expect the government to give Victorians answers. And when ministers appear before the hotel quarantine inquiry, we expect the government to give Victorians answers.”
A royal commission could be set up by either the state or federal government on the advice of government ministers.
The government would then be responsible for setting terms of reference and appointing commissioners, who would be given sweeping powers to probe matters of substantial public importance.
An inquiry into the state’s hotel quarantine program is already under way, as is a royal commission into Australia’s aged-care sector.
But the AMA believes a royal commission into Victoria’s response to the pandemic is needed because neither of those inquiries go far enough to uncover the wider problems.
The failed hotel quarantine scheme has been widely blamed for causing the state’s second wave.
The Herald Sun can now reveal a security guard was dismissed from the scheme for serious hygiene breaches in the first weeks of the controversial program.
Sources have confirmed the woman was found to have hugged and touched other guards at the Four Points Sheraton hotel. She also failed to maintain social distancing in other instances.
The incidents happened in early April, not long after private security was brought in to manage security at the venues.
The woman was removed for misconduct by the security firm managing the hotel.
She had been engaged for the work by a subcontractor.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Tuesday: “The aged-care royal commission is already looking at issues relating to COVID in terms of what occurred in NSW.
“I would expect them to look at what has occurred in Victoria as well.”
TRAVEL DIPS AS CITY HUNKERS DOWN
Melburnians are heeding the message not to leave the home unless for essential reasons, with data showing movement remains limited across the city.
There were 111,000 trips taken on public transport on Sunday, July 26, about 85 per cent lower than usual.
These journeys more than tripled on weekdays as essential workers commuted but the 365,000 trips recorded on Wednesday, July 22 were still less than a fifth of normal passenger numbers.
During the same period, motorists were significantly more likely to hit the road.
There were approximately 3.7 million vehicle trips recorded in Melbourne on Sunday while journeys rose to nearly 6.5 million on the Wednesday prior.
The weekday figure was 35 per cent lower compared to movement levels before coronavirus restriction were introduced.
“We’re seeing patronage down across the network as people in metropolitan Melbourne and Mitchell Shire do the right thing and stay home,” a government spokeswoman said.
“By limiting the number of people moving around our state we can limit the spread of the virus.”