A Victorian Department of Health official has described how she broke down in tears in the midst of a horrifying Covid outbreak that proved fatal for Melbourne aged care facility St Basil’s.
The virus claimed the lives of 45 residents at the Fawkner facility, with a further five dying from neglect after gaps were revealed in infection management during the state’s deadly second wave last year.
Throughout July and August, St Basil’s staff were furloughed after they became sick with the virus or were forced into quarantine after being exposed to it.
As those close to the crisis aired mounting concerns about the facility through email and text messages, Department of Health manager of palliative care Jackie Kearney said she broke down.
“I recall receiving various feedback from various people with different views about how things were going,” Kearney told an inquest into the disaster.
“I remember receiving [an email] and crying, it was an awful situation.”
During the course of the outbreak in July and August, 94 staff members became infected, leaving the facility with a severe staffing crisis.
The inquest is exploring whether there were alternatives open to the state and federal governments other than furloughing and replacing all staff. It is also examining the adequacy of the replacement workforce.
A surge workforce was organised by the commonwealth to replace staff on July 21, but some workers never showed up, others didn’t return for another shift and others contracted the virus.
Amid the staff shortages, residents missed meals, medications and washing, which proved fatal.
In a suite of desperate emails presented before the inquest on Friday, multiple communications between health officials showed there was serious concern around the furloughing of the workforce.
One email called it “extremely high risk” and “further endangered the welfare of residents”.
Other emails painted a very grim picture of the situation, with integrated care teams failing to rectify issues or provide solutions to the shortages.
Three nurses deployed at the peak of the outbreak told the inquest residents were “unwell” when they arrived and infection control protocols were questionable.
Nurses Deepika Yonzan, Rabina Khadka and Biting Tang from Aspen Medical, said they felt confronted by the harsh conditions.
“We could see that they were dehydrated, food was left on the table, they looked very weak,” Yonzan told the court.
“We didn’t have time to go for a break, go to the toilet, we didn’t even have time to drink water,” Khadka said.
The nurses also didn’t get a rest break until the third day of their employment.
They told the court staff who had worked in an infected red zone share a lunch-break room with staff from a green zone.
All three nurses contracted Covid after working at the facility.
They told the inquest handover notes were insufficient, and that they weren’t supplied with proper masks.
The inquest was told that despite the health service having the capacity to transfer residents from the facility to private hospitals on July 22, the process was delayed.
Both the state and federal governments were continuing to move residents from the facility as late as July 31.
The inquest is examining if communication between the Victorian and federal governments could have been better.
Kearney said logistic and practical issues may have been still been evident even if the residents were moved earlier.
“Potentially they could’ve [been there],” she said.
“If we had understood that transfers were going to be earlier, there would have been extra days in which to transport [the residents].”Do you have an idea for a story?
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