Suzana has been an aged care worker in Adelaide for the past 26 years. She says the pandemic has made the job more difficult than ever.
“When I first started, it was such a beautiful thing to do, to work with the residents,” Suzana, a union delegate, told 7.30.
“[Now] you just don’t get that same feeling of wanting to go to work. But you have to go to work.
There have been 685 COVID-19 related deaths in aged care in Australia since the pandemic began.
Suzana said that was a heavy burden for workers.
“Before, aged care workers were being blamed for everything that goes wrong in a nursing home with abuse. Now, we’re getting abuse for killing residents,” she said.
“We’re getting blamed for everything that happens wrong in the aged care sector.”
During Sydney’s latest outbreak, five aged care residents at a Summitcare facility in Baulkham Hills contracted coronavirus, along with one contract cleaner at Minchinbury Manor at Rooty Hill.
At the time, only a third of the Baulkham Hills facility’s workforce had been vaccinated.
“I’m very worried for my colleagues in New South Wales because I don’t think there’s any support for them,” Suzana said.
‘Should have been done by Easter’
Aged care residents and staff have been eligible for the vaccine since the rollout started in February, as part of the priority group 1A.
But uptake has been slow. Around the nation, first dose coverage for aged care workers is between 27 and 61 per cent.
Second dose coverage is between 19 and 42 per cent.
The federal government has now given aged care workers a two-month deadline to get at least one vaccination dose.
Suzana is frustrated she has had to rush to organise her own jab.
“I’m getting vaccinated on August 27,” she said.
“That was the earliest appointment I could get. So I booked it then and it’s on my work day, so I’ll have to take the day off.”
She said the government had botched the rollout and should have made it easier for workers to access the vaccine.
“It seems like they handed out this, ‘you have to do it’, but then gone into hiding.
“This should have been done by Easter and it wasn’t.”
Can the deadline be met?
RSL LifeCare runs 33 facilities across NSW and the ACT. Chief executive Graham Millett believes the mid-September deadline cannot be met without a formalised rollout plan from the government.
Of his 2,600 staff, only 42 per cent have received their first dose.
“What we found is that if you can make ease of access a priority, then people will generally agree to, in fact, are eager to be vaccinated,” he told 7.30.
The federal Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck declined 7.30’s interview request.
In a statement the Health Department said the government was rolling out on-site vaccination clinics for staff at some facilities in NSW and Victoria, and offering other incentives to get the jab.
“Residential aged care workers are also being supported to be vaccinated through an $11 million program to enable them to attend off-site vaccination centres and general practices and take time off if they become unwell after receiving their vaccination,” the statement said.
Kitchen, gardening and cleaning staff will also need to have one dose by mid-September, along with any volunteers.
Adelaide University employment law lecturer Professor Andrew Stewart said while aged care staff were required to have the flu vaccine, he believed mandating COVID jabs would be more complicated.
“I think what will be clear is that an aged care operator, for example, will be able to say to a worker, ‘You can’t come to work,’ but even in those situations there’s still going to be question marks,” he said.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said he wanted to be on a solid legal footing before mandating the jab.
“I don’t believe any orders have been made anywhere, yet, anywhere. That was certainly the case on Friday. What I don’t do is say what public health orders will be, because if I do that under the way public health orders are done now, we might find ourselves in court,” he said.
Suzana said some of her colleagues were hesitant about the vaccine and considering quitting the industry rather than having a mandatory jab.
“One of the carers particularly, she’s young, she’s still not sure … So she needs reassurance that it’s going to be OK,” she told 7.30.
Mr Stewart said the industry could not afford to lose workers.
“Giving people a reason to leave the sector because you’re telling them you have to get vaccinated whether you like it or not … is hardly a way of addressing the massive looming labour shortage in that industry,” he told 7.30.
Watch this story tonight on 7.30 on ABC TV and iview.