The Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission has said it was aware of a positive COVID-19 case at St Basil’s Home for Aged in Melbourne four days before the Department of Health says it was alerted.

St Basil’s Home for the Aged in Fawkner has the second largest aged care outbreak in the state with 171 cases linked to the facility, the Victorian Government reported on Monday.

That includes 84 residents, 60 staff and 27 contact cases, the ABC reported on Monday.

In a letter to the Senate Select Committee’s chair Senator Katy Gallagher on Monday, Aged Care Quality and Safety Commissioner Janet Anderson said the aged care watchdog was notified about a positive case at the facility on 10 July during a routine telephone contact.

The St Basil’s representative provided information that one staff member of the service was diagnosed with COVID-19 on 8 July and that the state’s Public Health Unit had been advised, Ms Anderson wrote.

Aged care minister Richard Colbeck told last Tuesday’s Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 hearing that the Federal health department was notified about an outbreak at St Basil’s on 14 July.

The Victorian Government reported a two-case outbreak at St Basil’s in its media update on 15 July.

In Monday’s letter Ms Anderson said the quality and safety commission was not the first responder to an outbreak in an aged care facility.

“The telephone contact was part of a specially designed activity by the Commission to contact every residential aged care service in Victoria and metropolitan Sydney to seek assurances from providers that COVID-19 response plans had been developed and were ready for immediate activation,” she said.

Janet Anderson

The facility’s responses were referred to the Commission’s COVID-19 response team, escalated internally and recorded in the daily confirmed case tracker, Ms Anderson said.

“The Commission did not escalate the matter externally at the time because the St Basil’s representative had confirmed in the interview that they had advised the PHU of the outbreak. The representative also confirmed that they had read the First 24 Hours document,” she said.

In the first 30 minutes of confirmed case, a facility is supposed to isolate and inform the positive case, contact the local PHU, contact the Commonwealth Department of Health and lockdown the facility.

“The Commission was subsequently advised about the outbreak at St Basil’s by the Commonwealth Department of Health on 14 July 2020,” Ms Anderson said.

In response to a question about whether there were gaps in communication processes between the quality and safety commission and the commonwealth health department, a spokesperson for the quality and safety commissioner referred Australian Ageing Agenda to Ms Anderson’s letter.

“The commission now has arrangements in place to confirm immediately with the Commonwealth Department of Health that they have been directly notified by the affected aged care service of any outbreak at that service that comes to the Commission’s attention by whatever means,” Ms Anderson said.

Community transmission caused delays

Elsewhere at last week’s inquiry, Mr Colbeck said the Commonwealth acted immediately once it was notified about positive cases.

Richard Colbeck

“We were advised of the outbreak by [the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services] on 14 July, and we immediately stood up our systems, which is what we do in any circumstance of an outbreak, and testing was arranged for the 15th,” Mr Colbeck told the inquiry.

Department of Health secretary Brendan Murphy said the growing number of positive COVID-19 cases in the community at the time caused the delay in notification.

“I think the challenge was, with the huge and overwhelming amount of community transmission, the Victorian public health unit had some delays in getting tests back and analysing and identifying that this was an aged care outbreak, and that was a significant factor in this case,” Mr Murphy told the inquiry.

Brendan Murphy

“It was merely a reflection of the scale of transmission and the literally hundreds of outbreaks that they were managing.”

Mr Murphy said the failure to notify federal authorities was a one-off case.

“Aside from St Basil’s, I can’t think of a situation where we haven’t immediately been made aware by a provider of their situation,” he said.

The Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission took regulatory action against St Basil’s Home for the Aged on 26 July for failing to meet four of the eight quality standards.

As required by the sanction, the provider has appointed an independent adviser for the duration of the outbreak, is making regular reports to the commission and cannot admit any new residents until all risks have been adequately addressed. 

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