Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton has defended his decision to stand down all staff at St Basil’s aged care facility during a fatal COVID-19 outbreak last year, calling it an “awful trade-off” to reduce transmission.
- Victorian Chief Health Officer Professor Brett Sutton gave evidence during the second week of a coronial inquest into the deadly COVID-19 outbreak at St Basil’s
- He defended his decision to direct all staff at the aged care home to be quarantined
- The CHO says he did so in an attempt to stop transmission and save lives
Professor Sutton was grilled at a coronial inquest today over his move, on July 21 last year, to deem all staff who had worked at St Basil’s between July 1 and July 15 close contacts, requiring them to quarantine for 14 days.
The direction meant the Fawkner home’s entire workforce was furloughed the following day, despite the concerns of local health officials who warned bringing in replacement staff would have disastrous consequences for the care of residents.
On Friday, Mr Sutton told the inquest his decision to stand down the aged care facility’s workforce was necessary to prevent the virus from spreading further within the home, as well as to the broader community.
“This is against an illness that kills one in three people infected in aged care, even 10 or 20 additional infections in that facility would have killed five or 10 individuals,” Professor Sutton said.
“It’s very clear that there are these awful trade-offs in the provision of care and welfare, and the risk of transmission.”
CHO defends decisions, describes ‘heartfelt sorrow’ for residents who suffered
Within days of the furloughing of St Basil’s staff, doctors brought in to assess the home reported witnessing widespread neglect and malnutrition of patients.
In July and August last year, 50 residents died, at least 45 of them from COVID-19.
Peter Rozen QC, who is assisting the coroner, said St Basil’s had the highest COVID-19 fatality rate in the country, and questioned why Professor Sutton had not checked whether the Commonwealth had managed to bring in an “appropriate” surge workforce.
“You were not told there would be a fundamental problem, were you? But, equally, you didn’t ask,” Mr Rozen said.
“No, I didn’t ask,” Professor Sutton responded.
Between July 19 and August 2 last year, 61 workers at St Basil’s tested positive for COVID-19.
Professor Sutton told the inquiry he acknowledged that having experienced staff played a “central role” in managing transmission of the virus. However, he said that concerns about finding a replacement workforce weren’t raised with him.
“I accept there’s additional evidence that could have been brought to my attention, yes,” he said.
“My direction had the caveat that furloughing would only take place when there was an appropriate workforce in place.”
Professor Sutton told the inquiry he believed his decision to furlough staff gave the “greatest chance at saving lives”.
“My belief at the time was, and still is, that — had the direction about close contacts not been made — the likely outcome was infection of close to all the residents and staff at the facility with a loss of more lives.”
However, he also said the events might have been inevitable.
“In an outbreak like St Basil’s, where infection had seeded so widely and so quickly, it may be that, even with furloughing of all staff, the eventual outcome could not be prevented,” he said.
He also apologised to the families of the residents who had died, and said he felt “heartfelt sorrow” over the pain and suffering they had experienced.
Lack of cooperation from St Basil’s management not anticipated
Today the inquest also heard Professor Sutton’s directive for staff to isolate was triggered by the former chairman of St Basil’s, Konstantin Kontis’ refusal to stand down the facility’s staff two days earlier.
In an email sent to Victorian health department workers, Mr Kontis said he would escalate the matter to the Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox church as well as the media.
“I am not prepared to direct my staff to vacate the premises and for alternative staff to be brought in,” Mr Kontis wrote.
“Until and unless I receive such a directive, I am directing my staff to stay on site and continue their operations and cease having endless meetings which can be utilised on care of my residents.”
Earlier testimony given to the inquiry has accused St Basil’s management of failing to assist with the public health response, despite the worsening outbreak.
Mr Rozen questioned Professor Sutton about why he did not give a direct order for the home’s managers to cooperate.
“It didn’t come to my mind that it was a specific direction that was required,” Professor Sutton said.
“I had an expectation that if he [Konstantin Kontis] were to comply with that, then the white flag would, in effect, be raised … that he would be cooperative with the other elements.”
Mr Kontis is scheduled to give evidence on the final day of the inquest.
The inquest continues.
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