The federal government says it will send rapid response teams out to home care providers and has pledged to guarantee supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) as part of its coronavirus support for the community sector.
Dr Michael Lye, the health department’s deputy secretary of ageing and aged care, says providers should not panic about running out of PPE because aged care will be given priority for access to the national stockpile.
“We will guarantee your supply,” he told a national webinar on COVID-19 perparedness for the home and community care sector last Friday.
“Once you have cases of COVID-19 in your practice the department is establishing rapid response teams which will be available to go and visit your workplace and talk to you about the needs that you might have in terms of managing workforce needs, infection control procedures and access to PPE,” Dr Lye said.
“At the point that you have an incident that’s confirmed, that’s the time to contact your state health authorities and we will be there to assist.”
Dr Lye also said the government would support home care providers with workforce issues via a range of measures, including the potential use of graduates and students, and loosening of visa requirements.
Community Care Review understands peak organisations were last week overwhelmed by enquiries about the seminar, which was only available to invited stakeholders and providers. It is now available for viewing here.
‘A constellation of challenges’
Aged Care Quality and Safety Commissioner Janet Anderson said the home care sector was faced with “a constellation of challenges and a constellation of risks” that demanded agile, flexible, pragmatic and resourceful service providers.
The challenges included having a large number of care recipients with varying cultural background, levels of need and mobility.
“Some of them, indeed a high proportion of them, are likely to have some degree of underlying chronic disease,” Ms Anderson said.
“Some older consumers may be unable to comply independently with basic personal hygiene. Some may live in circumstances where there is lots of foot traffic, or none at all.”
She advised all providers to check the Quality Standards – particularly those relating to risk management, personal and clinical care and putting the safety and wellbeing of the individual at the centre.
She advised providers to get know the circumstances of their clients well and ensure there are alternative options to provide support, such as neighbours, if their operations were disrupted or temporarily discontinued.
Providers needed to be able to scale up their response and be prepared for a worst case scenario.
“Anticipate the abnormal,” she said. “Prepare for it and be ready”.
Ms Anderson also stressed the need for good record keeping throughout the outbreak as well as clear messaging to staff and clients.
Ms Anderson said there may be a case for the suspension of non-essential services such as gardening and home maintenance.
However providers will still be required to deliver safe and quality essential services and they would be expected to “exercise clear-eyed judgement” where risk is attached to an adjustment, she said.
Employing family carers
Professor Chris Poulos Head of Research and Aged Care Clinical Services of HammondCare provided an overview of the organisation’s approach, which included a regularly monitored ‘pandemic’ email address to answer questions from staff, and a ‘COVID-19 Toolbox’ training kit, and ensuring all staff carry PPE in their cars.
HammondCare was looking at maximising staff availability, including asking workers to reassess leave time and consider ‘flexing up’ their hours of work.
Professor Poulos also said in the event of “extreme pressure” HammondCare would consider paying family carers to fill a gap.
“If there is extreme pressure it may be that we would look at employing family carers to provide personal care on a paid casual basis and looking at friends, and perhaps other members of the community who may have been displaced from their workplaces, undertaking other tasks within the home care space such as shopping on a paid casual basis,” he said.
Ramping up efforts
The aged care sector faced a ‘vast challenge’ in protecting Australia’s more than one million home care recipients as well as the home care work force from COVID-19, LASA said.
“While residential care can be secured and entrants carefully vetted to protect residents and staff, older people receiving home care within the community are highly vulnerable to the spread of the virus,” CEO Sean Rooney told Community Care Review.
Mr Rooney said home care providers were ramping up intensifying to protect clients and staff.
“The national webinar highlighted many concerns from providers that should help guide authorities to roll out strategies and support to minimise virus transmission,” he told CCR.
“The scale of the challenge is vast, with more than one million older Australians receiving care and assistance through the Home Care Packages scheme and the Commonwealth Home Support Program.
“We will continue working tirelessly with agencies and the government to ensure aged care in the home is a critical part of the COVID-19 response.”
Aged care minister Richard Colbeck told the webinar that the seminar came in response to a clear need for more information to the home care sector about responding to the coronavirus.
Guidelines prepared by the Communicable Diseases Network Australia (CDNA) for residential providers would be adapted for home care and released shortly, he said.