Victoria's Health Department told a Werribee aged care home in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak that it could not transfer four residents diagnosed with the deadly virus to hospital, despite the centre's concerns about the safety of staff and residents.
Twenty-three cases of COVID-19 have now been linked to Glendale Age Care facility in Werribee, including 13 staff and four residents. A fifth resident, 90-year-old Alf Jordan, 90, died in hospital with COVID-19 last week.
Alf Jordan, who died in hospital with COVID-19, was a resident at the Glendale Aged Care home in Werribee.
Glendale Aged Care raised its frustration over the denied hospital transfer request with Labor MP Joanne Ryan, the federal member for Lalor.
The aged care home told her it had been informed by the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services that the four residents with COVID-19 could not be transferred to hospital and the home would need to manage its own workforce to look after them.
Ms Ryan said she had been monitoring the situation at Glendale.
"Upon hearing their concerns today about patient transfers, I have been in touch with federal health authorities to raise Glendale’s concerns in an attempt to get a speedy and satisfactory outcome for residents, their families, the staff and the management," she said.
Glendale Aged Care declined to comment.
The DHHS said some of the state's aged care residents had been transferred to hospital during COVID-19 outbreaks in the past fortnight.
"Access to acute care is based on clinical need and no Victorian will be denied appropriate clinical care when needed," the department said in a statement.
"The COVID-19 Aged Care Plan means these care decisions are made on a case-by-case basis and take into account the clinical needs and preference of the resident, and a facility’s capacity to provide the level of care required, workforce and infection control risks.
"Depending on the severity of cases and their setting, the decision may be made to provide treatment for the patient in the existing facility. In some cases, relocation into an unfamiliar setting can have negative impacts on the wellbeing of the patient in care, and may result in further risk to the patient.
"DHHS works closely with aged care facilities to ensure care of residents is not compromised in any way and appropriate treatment can be provided as required."
There have been 27 virus outbreaks in Victorian aged care homes since the start of the pandemic, with growing clusters at facilities in Essendon and Ardeer.
On Thursday all residents from Menarock aged care in Essendon were moved to acute care in hospital after an outbreak among staff and residents reached 31 cases, up two from Wednesday. Estia aged care in Ardeer has 21 cases.
Aged care provider groups have written to the state government urging it to transfer all aged care residents who tested positive to hospital to give them the best chance of survival and prevent major outbreaks.
Anglicare chief Grant Millard has said if he had his time again he would have sent all COVID-19 positive residents to hospital from the Anglicare-run Newmarch House aged care home in Sydney, where 19 residents died in one of the country's worst outbreaks.
"You can't expect hospital-like service from a residential aged care provider," he said in May.
Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said on Thursday that the key strategy health authorities were relying on to keep the virus from aged care homes was screening healthcare workers who entered the homes, rather than removing sick residents.
"I don't think moving residents out who are infected is always the control measure that is required," he said.
"The primary thing is to never have infection introduced in the first place ... We need to focus on making sure the staff who are turning up positive are excluding themselves at the very first symptom."
But Aged Care Guild CEO Nicholas Brown said it was "definitely a concern" that Glendale had not been able to transfer its COVID-19 positive residents to hospital.
"DHHS seems to be stonewalling here," Mr Brown said.
"This is an industry-wide issue across a lot of states and territories - the only state with a clear protocol to transfer COVID-positive aged care residents to hospital is South Australia.
"My big concern in Victoria is senior Australians in care are not getting the same access to hospital as everybody else."
Aged and Community Services Australia CEO Patricia Sparrow said the government was deciding case by case whether to treat a sick person at their nursing home or take them to hospital,
“Residents who test positive need to be transferred to hospital – for them to get the best treatment, but also for providers to be able to stop the further infection of residents,” she said.
Some facilities would find it difficult to stop the spread of infection, she said, and all homes have common dining areas.
On Nine's The Today Show on Thursday, host Allison Langdon said she had just heard from Graeme, a resident at Glendale Aged Care, who had lost a friend to COVID-19 and wanted infected residents taken straight to hospital.
Asked if he agreed, federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said those medical decisions were being made on the ground.
"So what we've done is made sure that every facility immediately has access to hospital, to removal, to another facility, or to isolation," Mr Hunt told The Today Show.
"Those medical decisions are being made on the ground, but this is something that the Prime Minister and myself and Richard Colbeck, the Aged Care Minister, have been incredibly focused on."
Richard Lindley, a professor of geriatric medicine at the University of Sydney, said the option of hospital transferral needed to be seriously considered.
“Nursing home staff don’t have the expertise and training in infection control the hospital nursing staff would have,” he said.
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“The carers often come from the most disadvantaged groups in society. Some of them are working in more than one facility. We know from overseas experience outbreaks can be spread very easily across other nursing homes.”
On Thursday the federal government said authorities were considering banning healthcare workers from working across multiple aged-care facilities.