The ABC’s Four Corners program turned its attention to the Newmarch House COVID-19 outbreak and found mismanagement, poor infection control and a lack of communication with residents and families at the centre of the cluster which saw 19 people die.
The episode, titled ‘Like the plague’, followed the outbreak from its first days, when a COVID-19-infected staff member worked six shifts, and over the course of the six-week saga. It documented the torment and heartache suffered by the families of residents trapped inside with little-to-no information provided about loved ones.
Residents were “sitting there waiting to die” said the families, confined to their rooms with unanswered calls, cold and receiving little food or face to face contact.
One resident who tested positive for the virus wasn’t able to shower for two-and-a-half weeks as no staff were around to help.
One resident was left alone left their room after a fall and another was left sick and struggling with undiagnosed pneumonia until family intervened.
Four Corners identified poor infection control as one reason the virus was able to spread unfettered through the home.
As the pandemic unfolded and staff were forced into isolation, the home faced a workforce crisis and Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation federal secretary Annie Butler told reporters that the use of underqualified personal care workers as replacements would have exacerbated the spread.
“There’s no minimum requirement mandated for care workers in the industry. So there can be people who have no training at all, or who have done a so-called online aged care course, who can be available to work in the facility,” she said.
“You can be the best-intentioned person in the world, but when you don’t know what you’re doing, it can be very difficult.”
Many residents who eventually tested positive for coronavirus say they hadn’t left their room for weeks prior to their diagnosis.
Another major failure in the handling of the outbreak was the decision to keep COVID-positive residents in the home instead of transferring them to hospital. The home was also criticised for not separating the COVID-positive residents from the negative residents until 22 days after the onset of the outbreak.
Of the 19 residents who died in Newmarch house, only one died in hospital.
Compare that to the other large aged care cluster at Dorothy Henderson Lodge in Sydney, where swift action was taken and 80 per cent of positive cases were sent to hospital for treatment.
NSW Health would not allow concerned families to take COVID-negative residents out of the home to protect them.
An Anglicare spokesperson told families this was to “reduce and contain the risk of spread. I understand as a public health order it may be legally enforceable”.
NSW Health then threatened a resident and his family with an $11,000 fine and up to six months in jail if he left the home.
The man later died of COVID-19.
Families have accused Anglicare and the government of sacrificing their loved ones to protect the wider community.
Throughout the ordeal, families say they were kept in the dark. They often took matters into their own hands, keeping vigil outside the home in protest, and reaching out to several media outlets to hold Anglicare to account.
After 18 days of the outbreak – which saw 56 positives, 22 staff, 34 residents and 12 deaths – Anglicare erected fencing around the home, totally cutting families off from loved ones.
One family member described this measure as “a corporate response, not a humane response”.
Communication to the residents was also criticised. One resident only found out she tested positive for COVID-19 after she stuck her head out of her room door, only to find a sign warning people not to enter. A family member had to call to confirm she had the virus.
Anglicare Sydney CEO Grant Millard’s handling of the outbreak came under scrutiny as he did not appear at a meeting held to inform family members of the state of the home during the outbreak. When he did appear to talk with family members they accused him of reading from a prepared script.
Who watches the watchmen?
The Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission and its leader Janet Anderson did eventually step in to try and stem the unfolding disaster, appointing an independent advisor to oversee the recovery efforts.
However, Anderson was admonished for appointing a former investment banker with little aged care experience and no clinical training or qualifications.
“The approval of the appointment by the regulator is just yet another symptom of the sector,” Annie Butler said.
“The regulator themselves doesn’t appear to understand what’s fully required when you’re in the midst of a global pandemic that’s threatening people’s health.
“You need a health response. You need a health expert. Not a financial expert.”
Anderson went on to tell families in a meeting, held over Zoom, that she found “no profound failure” in the handling of the outbreak at Newmarch.
Anderson would not appear on the Four Corners episode, nor would NSW health Minister Brad Hazzard, federal aged care minister Richard Colbeck or Anglicare’s Grant Millard.
In interviews during the disaster, Millard would concede that if he had his time over again he would make the decision to move COVID-19 residents to hospitals straight away.
Worse things than death
As the Newmarch coronavirus outbreak has been declared over, residents and families have to try and recover physically and mentally, while facing the loss of friends and loved ones.
One resident who recovered from the virus was asked if she knew how many of her finds have passed away.
“That’s something I’ve gotta face when I get out of my room,” she said.
“I think it’s six. It’s sad but there are worse things than death. You come here for a couple of days. There’s worse things than death.”
Families of Newmarch residents now want answers.
“Any death is horrible; any family has to grieve. But with the poor communication we’ve had over the last month, there has to be an inquiry,” said Nicole Fahey, whose grandmother died.
Mary Watson watched on as her mother Alice died slowly, three and a half weeks after testing positive for COVID-19 and she is angry at the treatment her mother received.
“This virus spread like the plague in there,” she said.
“I’m 100 per cent positive that if this happened to young people we would have had a whole different outcome.
“There would have been people screaming in the streets.”
Thirty-seven residents were infected at Newmarch house and 34 members of staff.
Nineteen residents lost their lives.Do you have an idea for a story?
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