Australia

Nursing home staff ordered to wear masks after doctor complaints

Nursing home staff have been ordered to wear surgical masks after doctors working in Victorian facilities said they were laughed at for wearing protective gear or told it is a “bad look”, despite growing coronavirus outbreaks in Melbourne.

A cluster at Menarock Life aged care in Essendon blew out to 26 cases on Monday, with 15 new cases identified and a number of residents from the facility in Melbourne’s north transferred into acute hospital care.

Dr Sachin Patel sends dozens of GPs into aged-care facilities, but he says not all have welcomed the doctors taking precautions.

Dr Sachin Patel sends dozens of GPs into aged-care facilities, but he says not all have welcomed the doctors taking precautions.Credit:Eddie Jim

Despite the added danger COVID-19 poses to the elderly, GPs working in the sector have warned that masks are not being used in most nursing homes, as staff or management considered they were unnecessary.

Late on Monday, Health Minister Greg Hunt announced people who provided care in residential facilities or homes would be required to wear a mask, following recommendations from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee.

Four million masks are to be made available to aged care providers in Greater Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire.

Melbourne GP Joe Garra said that when he visited two nursing homes in Werribee late last week, the only other person wearing a mask was another doctor. That is despite the suburb already being home to one aged-care outbreak, which claimed the life of 90-year-old Alf Jordan on Friday.

Health Minister Greg Hunt was wearing a face mask on Monday.

Health Minister Greg Hunt was wearing a face mask on Monday.

Dr Garra said that when he asked a nurse why no one was wearing a mask, he was told they didn’t have any coronavirus cases at the nursing home “so there's no need to”.

“It puzzles me why they aren’t being proactive in wearing a face shield or mask,” he said.

“It makes no sense to me.”

Dr Sachin Patel runs Aged Care GP, which sends doctors into 70 aged care facilities across Melbourne. He said that he requires his GPs to wear not only a mask, but “full” protective equipment, including a face shield, gowns and gloves.

Some of his doctors had gone even further, wearing a hood with an extraction pump.

However he said that these precautions had not always been welcomed.

“People hate it,” he said.

Dr Patel said when the service started communicating to nursing homes a month-and-a-half ago that doctors would be arriving in protective equipment they received feedback that providers didn’t want it or it was “a bad look", while others had laughed at the measures.

He said while most aged care facilities had still not adopted masks, it was vital not only to protect aged-care residents but also the doctors, who would have to spend weeks in quarantine if exposed to coronavirus patients without full protection.

“It is not comfortable. It’s not nice. I don’t argue with that,” Dr Patel said. “But the whole situation is not comfortable or nice.”

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Last week most of Melbourne’s hospital staff were directed to wear surgical masks at all times while at work, and on Monday the Australian Medical Association said nursing home staff should be doing the same thing.

The AMA’s Victorian president, Associate Professor Julian Rait added staff should also be divided up into teams, as many hospital healthcare workers continue to be placed into quarantine after coming into contact with someone with coronavirus.

“In the event there is an infection or an outbreak in one area, it doesn't mean workers in the other area have been exposed to potentially-infected staff, and their patients,” he said.

In addition to the significant outbreak at the Menarock Life facility, there are also now 13 linked to the fatal Glendale Aged Care Facility in Werribee and two cases at Japara Central Park Aged Care in Windsor.

Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said the outbreak at the Menarock Life facility in Essendon was big and was being "very intensively managed at the moment".

The state government will supply masks for staff at public aged care homes out of Victoria’s stockpile, while the federal government has agreed to do so for private and not-for-profit facilities, which it is responsible for.

"We've seen how quickly this virus can spread through aged care facilities with tragic consequences,” Ms Mikakos said.

"Due to the increasing numbers of cases we are seeing in aged care facilities, we have asked the Commonwealth to make masks available from the national stockpile for aged care workers in not-for-profit and private facilities.

"We are grateful to [Aged Care Minster Richard] Colbeck and the federal government for their swift response to ensure these important workers have the protection they need to keep themselves and vulnerable Victorians safe.”

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