Australia Three in four aged care deaths in NSW's Delta outbreak were fully vaccinated, data shows

22:11  14 october  2021
22:11  14 october  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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Government data, released to the ABC, has revealed 36 of the 49 aged care residents that died after contracting COVID-19 during NSW's Delta outbreak were fully vaccinated.

All had underlying health conditions or were in palliative care.

Until now, the overall number last year's deaths in NSW aged care facilities had been reported weekly by the Federal Department of Health and their vaccination status occasionally mentioned in NSW Health daily updates, but no cumulative figure had been publicly released.

Professor Lee-Fay Low, who specialises in ageing and health at the University of Sydney, said it shows the elderly were still vulnerable.

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"Last year, 33 percent of aged care residents that got COVID-19 died," Professor Low said.

"This year, it's come down to 14 per cent but it's still a lot higher than the 0.4 per cent of Australians that die if they get COVID-19."

When lockdown lifted in NSW on Monday, new health advice permitted aged care residents two fully vaccinated visitors a day and permission to leave their facilities to attend family gatherings.

Given community transmission of the virus was expected to rise as restrictions ease, Professor Low said residents and families should be asked what level of risk they were willing to accept.

"There's a balance, if you're trapped, locked in a home which can't meet your needs for love and can't see your grandchildren, how do you balance that against maybe a 14 per cent chance of dying if you get COVID?"

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Professor Low was concerned that some aged care facilities were rejecting health advice and enforcing tighter restrictions without consulting families.

"Because it was so catastrophic last year when there was an outbreak in nursing homes, facilities are really scared to reopen, and I think we should shift that risk balance towards wellbeing a bit more."

Vicki Dowling's mother Lorna Willmott is a resident at Ashfield Baptist Homes in Sydney's inner west.

"It's time to move on," Ms Dowling said.

"There's risks in life with everything we do. There's a risk when we get in the car and cross the road."

Her mother's facility had a range of programs encouraging family reunions, and 86-year-old Lorna said it had made a world of difference.

"I feel extremely lucky, this is really wonderful, I couldn't knock it," Ms Willmott said.

She said she felt safe after receiving both vaccinations and was relishing the time spent with family.

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The CEO of Ashfield Baptist Homes, Leigh Kildey, said striking the right balance between the mental wellbeing of residents and their ongoing safety was still a challenge.

She acknowledged that while mandatory vaccinations for aged care staff and visitors will reduce the risk of transmission, it won't entirely eliminate it.

"We have six levels of protection before people can come in, including rapid antigen tests," Ms Kildey said.

She, and many others in the industry, believe the federal government should provide the test kits free of charge to aged care homes.

Paul Sadler, who is the CEO of Aged and Community Services Australia (ACSA), said he knows of one provider that had to pay $55,000 a week to use the tests at its facilities.

"That's unsustainable for aged care in the long term. We need the government to step in," Mr Sadler said.

A spokesperson for the Federal Department of Health said free rapid antigen tests had been provided to aged care facilities in high risk LGA's and the government was considering its use in a broader context.

Mr Sadler also holds concerns that the protection of the vaccine could be waning, with some elderly residents getting their jabs six months ago.

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As of this week, people with a severely weakened immune system, such as patients being treated for cancer, are eligible for a booster shot, but aged care residents are not.

Mr Sadler said he was concerned health officials were taking too long to decide.

"We know potentially the vaccine efficacy wears off after time — it could be around six months," he said.

"We need to know now whether we need booster shots rolled out."

A spokesperson for the Department of Health's vaccine advisory group, ATAGI, was still considering whether aged care residents should be included in the rollout.

If they are, it recommends the booster shot take place two to six months after the second dose.

"ATAGI will provide further advice on booster doses for healthcare workers, older adults including people living in residential aged care, and the general population separately," the statement read.

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