Less than a quarter of Western Australia’s residential aged care workforce is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, sparking fears of staff shortages when inoculation becomes mandatory in mid-September.
- WA has the lowest vaccination rate among aged care workers
- Just 22 per cent are fully vaccinated
- Only about half of frontline workers in the regions are fully vaccinated
Late last month National Cabinet agreed to make COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for residential aged care workers by mid-September 2021, at which point workers must have received at least their first shot.
As of Wednesday, 37 per cent of WA’s 23,932 residential aged care workers had received at least one dose of the vaccine, while just 22 per cent were fully vaccinated, according to the federal Department of Health.
It is the lowest fully vaccinated rate in the nation for aged care staff, and only the ACT has recorded a smaller proportion of first vaccinations administered for these workers.
By comparison, 51 per cent of the 275,907 aged care workers nationwide had received a first dose and 32 per cent had been given two shots.
Compulsory vaccination will see workers quit: ANF
Australian Nursing Federation (ANF) state secretary Mark Olson said some aged care workers had already resigned since the announcement about mandatory vaccination was made.
“If aged care workers who are not vaccinated cannot go to work in mid-September, we are going to have a disaster of unprecedented proportions in the aged care industry,” he said.
“I don’t support mandatory vaccinations in aged care, because I know that we are going to lose between 10 and 30 per cent of our aged care workforce.
“That in itself is going to be far more catastrophic than having lower levels of vaccinations than what the government wants.
“We have just been through the royal commission, we know that this is one of the most delicate areas for staffing of all the areas in our economy right now.”
To date, Western Australia’s aged care workforce is lagging behind other state and territory vaccination rates.
In a statement, a spokesman for the Department of Health said all residential aged care workers, irrespective of age, could get the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine as a priority.
Mr Olson said the government should consider incentives for workers to be vaccinated, and also roll out vaccines in the workplace to make it as easy as possible for workers to get the shot.
The spokesman said the decision to mandate the vaccine in aged care homes was based on expert medical advice provided by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC).
He said it was up to the states and territories to issue public health orders that would mandate the vaccines.
“All states and territories will work toward implementing this decision using state public health orders or similar state and territory instruments, and will provide an indication of timing when it is available,” he said.
Federal incentives needed, McGowan says
Premier Mark McGowan said the vaccination of aged care staff was the Commonwealth’s responsibility.
“They certainly need to step up,” he said.
“They were talking at the last National Cabinet meeting about putting in place more in-reach, and that means vaccinators going into each aged care facility and vaccinating staff on site as a way of lifting the rate of vaccines.
“I think it is now getting quite important that those sorts of measures are put in place.
“The program in aged care needs to ramp up. It is going to become mandatory.”
Uncertainty around rollout
But Health Services Union of Western Australia Secretary Naomi McCrae said it was still unclear how the mandate would be implemented.
“Workers across the residential aged care sector, made up of many different occupations, have been given a looming deadline with still no information on how the announcement will be implemented,” she said.
“The scope of the required public health orders remains unclear and the promised workforce risk and benefit analysis uncompleted.
“There is a great deal of uncertainty consistent with the federal government’s chaotic vaccine roll out.”
Council On The Ageing WA chief executive Christine Allen said she had been told up to 30 per cent of aged care staff had indicated they would resign from their job rather than be forced to get vaccinated.
“Clearly that is not the preferred outcome that we want for that workforce,” she said.
“And it is really important, not only for their protection but for the older people as well, to make sure that they are vaccinated.
“I think policy needs to be put in place to make it easy and convenient for the workforce to get the vaccination before the deadline.”
Visitors ‘should be vaccinated’
Ms Allen said everyone who entered aged care homes, not just workers, should be vaccinated against COVID-19.
“For anybody to go into a residential aged care home, they have to produce a confirmation that they have had a flu vaccine, this is not the case with COVID,” she said.
“What would be helpful would be consistent policy.
“If we are truly going to protect the residents of aged care, then surely everybody needs to be vaccinated.”
The federal Health Department spokesman said residential aged care workers had been given priority access across all primary care sites, including GPs and Commonwealth vaccination clinics, and state and territory mass vaccination sites.
“Additional dedicated Pfizer vaccine has been allocated to all 31 Primary Health Networks across Australia for residential aged care workers,” he said.
“In addition, residential aged care providers are delivering their own vaccination clinics for workers through a Request for Tender process.
“All residential aged care workers are strongly encouraged to get vaccinated as it is the best protection against hospitalisation and death.”
A WA Health spokesman said vaccinating aged care workers was coordinated by, and the responsibility of the Commonwealth.
“However, WA has supported these workers to get priority access to state-run clinics in recent months,” the spokesman said.
Country health workers unvaccinated
Meanwhile, only about half of WA Country Health Service frontline workers have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
WA Health data showed 61 per cent had received one dose of a vaccine, while just 50 per cent had been fully immunised.
The data related only to vaccines administered through WA Health COVID-19 clinics and did not include vaccines administered through GPs or pharmacies, so the department said the true number of vaccinated staff was likely higher.
The department also said the vaccine rollout in regional areas began after the city, and the lower percentages were reflective of this.
But Narrogin doctor and rural representative for the WA Australian Medical Association, Peter Maguire, said it was both “extremely disappointing” and “worrying in the face of the Delta variant.”
“We really need the health workforce vaccinated — pretty darn soon,” Dr Maguire said.
He said while vaccine supply and accessibility could have affected the uptake, there was a feeling among country people that they were safer than those in the city, which may have lead to the low numbers.
In a statement, WA Health said health service providers were “expected to, where possible, ensure all COVID-19 patients are treated by vaccinated staff only, particularly in higher risk areas” which included emergency departments, intensive care units, respiratory wards and COVID testing clinics.
“Other jurisdictions across Australia have similar vaccination rates for health staff,” the spokesman said.
The data also showed about one quarter of frontline PathWest staff and staff within the COVID-19 Department of Health response team had not been fully vaccinated.
On Wednesday the ABC revealed around one in five frontline metropolitan healthcare staff were not fully vaccinated against COVID 19.