Confusion has been building in Victoria’s aged care sector over new rules allowing unvaccinated people to visit loved ones, with many feeling it puts vulnerable lives in danger.

Key points:

  • Victoria’s relaxed aged care visitation rules allow for unvaccinated visitors 
  • Families fear the changes will risk COVID-19 coming into aged care homes
  • Some facilities say rapid antigen tests are a better solution than jab mandates

Aged care facilities operated with strict visitation rules for months while the state battled its third wave of COVID-19.

But on October 29 the rules eased, allowing each aged care resident up to five visitors per day and permitting unvaccinated visitors as long as they avoided common areas and visited outdoors or in the resident’s room.

For months the sector protected itself by mandating staff vaccinations and giving vaccine priority to residents, with booster shots beginning on November 8.

The Victorian government says the measures are appropriate with 80 per cent of the state’s population fully vaccinated, including all care facility workers and “functionally” all residents.

In a statement, the Department of Health said individual care facilities could still set their own entry rules, and it “strongly recommends” all visitors are vaccinated and that care facilities have “additional COVID-safe measures in place”.

But many in the aged care sector believe welcoming unvaccinated visitors makes no sense, when those without two jabs are banned from cafes, council facilities and more.

‘A strange decision’

Leigh Clarke from Cudgee in south-west Victoria said he was “pretty upset” when he learned about the new visitation rules, fearing they would put his parents’ lives at risk.

Mr Clarke’s mother and father live at Mercy Place’s Warrnambool aged care home, and up until now visitation rules had been strict — something he supported.

Man standing on a prier smiling

Leigh Clarke is worried his parents will be exposed if unvaccinated people visit.(Supplied: Leigh Clarke)

“I think it’s wrong, really. I think it should be mandated that everyone that goes into a nursing home should be vaccinated,” he said.

“[Allowing unvaccinated people in] makes them vulnerable.”

Mr Clarke and his sisters, who live in Melbourne and Sydney, had gotten vaccinated to protect their parents and he thought the new rule made the effort his sisters went through seem pointless.

“They’ve been vaccinated and they’ve got all their Medicare and medical records so they can come, and now these other people are allowed in … so it’s just a strange decision,” he said.

Advocates back mandatory jabs

Advocacy groups and nursing unions have been calling on governments to enforce vaccinations among aged care visitors, stating the rule seemed inconsistent with full vaccination requirements in most other settings.

Sarah Russell, the director of Aged Care Matters, said she feared unvaccinated visitors would put unnecessary stress on staff and residents.

Sarah Russell wearing red glasses and a necklace, looking at the camera in a portrait taken indoors.

Sarah Russell believes mandating vaccines for visitor will bring piece of mind.(ABC News: Patrick Stone)

“I think some residents will probably stay in their room because they don’t want to confront someone in their home who is not vaccinated,” Dr Russell said.

“And to have to put more on [the staff’s] workload in terms of managing separate areas for vaccinated and unvaccinated people … it just seems like an incredible burden to put on an already burdened workforce.”

Lisa Fitzpatrick, the secretary of the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation’s Victorian branch, said booster shots among staff and residents gave some protection, but visitors should be vaccinated.

“We still have to take every opportunity that we can and everything that is available to us to protect the vulnerable, the old and the frail,” she said.

“We don’t want to see the disaster play out like what we saw in 2020.”

A staff member in COVID-19 protective gear putting a nasal swap in a visitors nose.

TLC Healthcare has done more than 52,000 rapid antigen tests since September 9.(Supplied: TLC Healthcare)

Better way to protect residents

But the chief executive from TLC Healthcare, Lou Pascuzzi, said unvaccinated visitors should be allowed in if they passed a rapid antigen test prior to entry.

The aged care operator, which has facilities across Melbourne and Geelong, was one of the first to mandate rapid antigen testing for visitors in early September after being involved in a state government trial.

Of the 52,000 tests conducted, 21 people had since tested positive to COVID-19 — an even mix of people who were fully, partially and unvaccinated.

“So ultimately, it’s not just the unvaccinated that are going to, or that should be seen as a risk in bringing the virus into residential aged care,” Mr Pascuzzi said.

“We see [rapid antigen testing] as the best mechanism of minimising the virus from entering the home and eliminating that question of discriminating with regard to who should or shouldn’t get it.”

Community should use ‘common sense’

If vaccinations are not mandated for visitors, Ms Fitzpatrick said it would be up to the community to do its part and protect aged care residents.

“I think it’s incumbent on the community to take responsibility for themselves to make sure that they’re vaccinated,” she said.

“If they’re not vaccinated, [they should] think twice about actually visiting an elderly relative because all you could be doing is passing on the virus.”

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Families, aged care sector puzzled by relaxed rules for unvaccinated visitors
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