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Australia’s largest aged care provider left in limbo about staff Covid vaccines six weeks into rollout

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Christopher Knaus
·3-min read
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<span>Photograph: James Ross/EPA</span>
Photograph: James Ross/EPA

Australia’s biggest private aged care provider says the government gave it no plan for the vaccination of its aged care workforce prior to last week’s AstraZeneca announcement, and says it is now waiting on authorities to finish rethinking their strategy.

Aged care staff were initially supposed to be vaccinated as part of the highest priority cohort under phase 1a – a recognition of the risk they pose for transmission into aged care facilities. The government, though, has shifted its plans and is yet to provide any data on how many aged care workers have been vaccinated so far, even in the new, more comprehensive datasets it has now released.

Related: Doctors say $21bn could be saved by eliminating avoidable hospital admissions for older Australians

Bupa runs roughly 60 aged care facilities across the country, housing more than 6,000 residents, meaning it is critically reliant on the aged care staff vaccination program.

The company told the Guardian on Thursday – more than six weeks into the rollout – it was yet to receive any plan from government for vaccinating its staff.

“Although an official program for our team members is yet to begin, we look forward to the government’s plans and acting on those to provide our staff and residents this additional protection,” a spokeswoman said late Thursday afternoon, just hours before prime minister Scott Morrison’s AstraZeneca announcement.

On Tuesday, the company told the Guardian it had since received word that the government is now reviewing its approach to aged care staff vaccinations in the wake of new advice to avoid AstraZeneca for under 50s.

“We await their direction,” the Bupa spokeswoman said.

More broadly, Bupa said it appreciated the government’s efforts to prioritise aged care in the rollout and that it had worked closely with industry. The spokeswoman said the experience of its residents had largely been positive.

“We understand this program is a large undertaking and whilst there have been some delays, our homes that have received their vaccinations have reported a professional and positive experience with high take-up rates,” she said.

The apparent lack of planning for aged care staff vaccination has worried advocates for weeks.

Early this month, the Council on the Ageing chief executive, Ian Yates, sounded the alarm on what he said was the absence of a clear plan for workers.

He said staff were far more likely to be carriers of the virus, making their vaccination critical.

Related: We need to put nurses back in nursing homes | Omar Khorshid

“Vaccination of the staff is really important to the Covid security of residents, and we are concerned that the vaccination of staff doesn’t seem to have a clear strategy at this point,” Yates said.

Staff were initially told they’d be vaccinated by in-reach teams on separate visits to residents, to avoid the risk of staffing shortfalls due to possible mild side-effects.

But, in practice, staff appear only to be receiving shots from in-reach teams if there are leftover Pfizer vaccinations after they’ve been administered to residents. Some workers say they were left in limbo after receiving a first Pfizer dose, either due to conflicting and inaccurate advice about where to get their second, or because their first shot was not added to the Australian immunisation record system properly.

The government has also missed deadlines for providing more information to aged care nurses on a plan to set up “pop-up” vaccination hubs to administer the jab to staff. The government had promised workers it would reveal the first locations for such pop-up clinics in early April.

There are thought to be roughly 318,000 aged and disability care staff requiring vaccination.

The health minister Greg Hunt was approached for comment.