When just one patient passed away as a result of COVID-19 infection in a Sydney aged care home, it was considered “a system failure”. To date, our country has lost 27 of its aged care community residents to the virus.
In Canada, almost half the deaths resulting from the novel coronavirus have occurred in nursing homes. In Quebec, 60 per cent of the pandemic deaths were residents of nursing homes or long-term care facilities. One Ontario nursing home lost a third of its residents (27 deaths). More than half the staff have tested positive for COVID-19.
In the United States, the virus has claimed at least 7000 lives in skilled nursing facilities. This accounts for approximately one-fifth of the deaths across the nation. Some 36,500 residents and front-line workers in American nursing homes have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
How are we protecting our Australian elders and front-line workers?
The demonstrated safety of the residents in Australia’s aged care homes has everything to do with the aged care initiatives and programs our federal government offers along with the strict regulations that apply to every facility, no matter if the home is public or private. In most other countries, homes for the elders of communities are regulated either on a city or state level, rather than a uniform federal level.
In the UK, care for the elderly is mainly run by local authorities with co-regulation from the government. The true number of COVID-related aged care home deaths in the UK is not known due to the varying tallies. As of April 3, the ONS released a figure that showed an average of 5 per cent of the deaths occurred in UK aged homes, but it is said to be much higher. The variance in death tallies is a representation of the inaccuracy that occurs when homes are not federally regulated.
No flu shot? No entrance.
Everyone entering into an Australian aged care home has to have a flu vaccination. This includes residents, staff, visitors, and even vendors coming in from the outside. The staff in the homes are encouraged to ask for proof of flu vaccination before anyone can enter. No flu shot? No entrance. No matter who you are. Our government mandates that the facility pay for its staff and every resident to get the flu shot. Although the influenza vaccination mandate has been in place since 2018, this preventive measure minimises flu outbreaks while preventing the risk of a resident’s body being overwhelmed by contracting both COVID-19 and influenza at the same time.
Because elder care is not federally regulated in the United States and Canada, getting a flu shot is mandated in some facilities and counties, and only a recommendation in others. No other countries are as strict as Australia with the absolute mandate of receiving influenza vaccination.
Strict lockdown has helped Australia avoid a widespread outbreak
In Australia, we have not seen the widespread national outbreak of countries such as the United States, China, Italy and Spain. Our curve has begun to flatten, and plans to reopen our country and recover the economy are in place. The great success in Australia is a result of quick action. We should be proud of our care for our citizens.
Protocol and regulations were set in place in February, and by March the entire country was locked down with the intent of protecting our population, especially our most vulnerable. The United States knew about the outbreak for almost two months before any action was taken, and the UK initially planned on developing herd immunity.
Although we faced a mask shortage in January, the UK not only did not supply its front-line staff with personal protective equipment, but its health secretary Matt Hancock refused to apologise for the danger the nurses and clinicians were in.
Australia’s advantages over other countries in the COVID-19 battle
Aside from the quick response and swift lockdown of the country, many other factors have helped Australia become an example for other countries in pandemic risk management and elderly care.
On March 29, our government expanded telehealth benefits for the entire population to see their primary care physician, general practitioner, and/or medical specialists virtually to prevent the spread of the virus and protect both patients and front-line workers.
Additionally, the government specified that physicians who are in the at-risk group could hold their virtual appointments with their patients from their homes rather than from a facility. Many reports are coming out of the United States about at-risk nurses who were forced to work on the front line without proper PPE or lose their job.
Although there are no federal laws regarding a staff-to-resident ratio in Australia, it is recognised that the ratio has a direct link to the quality of care the residents receive. A “much above-average” nursing home in the US has one registered nurse per 16 residents on a good staffing day. A below-average American nursing home has 29 residents per RN on its worst staffing day. The statistical link between the staff-resident ratio in the US may correlate with the 7000 nursing home coronavirus deaths.
The new global normal
Our world will never be the same after this pandemic. As we prepare to reopen the outside to our citizens, it should be obvious to the rest of the world that this country is doing it the right way, and we should take notes for the time when – not if – the next pandemic arrives.
Heidi West is a medical writer for Vohra Wound Physicians, a national wound care physician group. She writes about healthcare and technology in the medical industry.Do you have an idea for a story?
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