Aged care providers risk regulatory action if they experience a COVID-19 outbreak and can’t prove they were prepared and acted quickly, the quality and safety commissioner has warned.

The Department of Health hosted the National Webinar on Aged Care COVID-19 Preparedness on Monday to highlight the importance of being prepared to respond to any future COVID-19 cases in aged care.

The webinar heard from Aged Care Quality and Safety Commissioner Janet Anderson, who said action would be taken where providers do not respond effectively to a COVID-19 outbreak.

“Our role is to monitor your response by way of reducing risk of an outbreak and then rapidly responding if you have an outbreak. We assess your performance and we are most likely to take regulatory action when you’re caught flat footed,” Ms Anderson told the webinar on Monday.

Janet Anderson

She said if an outbreak has occurred and you are not responding decisively and effectively to the outbreak “then we will take regulatory action,” she said.

“But if you demonstrate you have a plan and you activate the plan quickly, then we will support you along that journey. We will help you problem solve. But we must be confident that you got yourself sorted, we must be confident that you are capable and ready to move,” Ms Anderson said.

Managing COVID outbreaks

Patrick Reid

The webinar also heard from two aged care leaders about how they managed COVID-19 outbreaks, including IRT Group CEO Patrick Reid.

IRT Tarrawanna Gardens Aged Care in Illawarra south of Sydney had an outbreak in October, which resulted in the death of five residents.

Mr Reid said the outbreak management plan involved running a first 24-hour checklist at each home.

“Within that is making sure that your staff know what their roles and responsibilities are in that first 24 hours, and… that checklist means that they can actually articulate well to both staff and residents what’s occurring,” Mr Reid said.

“Having that plan in place and staff knowing what to do from the moment that they understand that they do have an infected staff member or resident on site is very, very important,” Mr Reid said.

He said the outbreak management plan is a live document, currently up to version 31.

Mr Reid also stressed the importance of good communication with local public health units and residents and families.

“We had a process where we would ring each affected resident’s next of kin every day with an update on their loved one… but also too, we were putting out written communications by SMS, email and paper as well as required every day.

“It got to the point where you know you’re doing it right when some next of kin of residents were saying they don’t want to receive communications every day because you’ve done such a good job of keeping them abreast,” he said.

Ian Thorley

Estia Health CEO Ian Thorley said running a simulation process helped manage their 11 COVID outbreaks.

“We looked not only at the initial 24 hours, but we developed a scenario… that starts with a nurse ringing in indicating that they’ve got a headache, sore throat, and they’re off to get a COVID-19 test through for the next five days,” Mr Thorley said.

“What we’ve done is layered out various scenarios where a sore throat converts to a confirmed positive COVID test, and what you need to do to manage those circumstances.  We rolled this out across all of our 69 homes, because to have muscle memory is just so important,” he said.

Mr Thorley also advised aged care providers to think about workforce shortages.

“Think about expressions of interest of staff from your other homes that might wish to work in outbreak homes, because … should there be multiple outbreaks in a particular area, surge workforce might be limited, so you might be looking at your own resources,” he said.

The National Webinar on Aged Care COVID-19 Preparedness took place on 13 December.

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