Thank you for continuing to stay up to date with the latest information and thank you for your continued support and dedication to protecting older Australians in your care.
We recognise the COVID-19 pandemic, and particularly the emergence of the Omicron variant, continues to affect a significant number of aged care providers across the country, presenting new challenges for infection prevention and control. The risk of cases in aged care facilities continues to increase and senior Australians, and those caring for them, remain vulnerable. Aged care, however, remains a top priority for the Australian Government.
Australia’s COVID-19 vaccination rollout program has been, and continues to be, highly successful and is saving lives. The high rates of vaccination for residents and staff is changing the impact of outbreaks and how we manage an outbreak.
But vaccination is not the only line of defence. Further steps are being taken, jointly by the Australian Government and state and territory governments, to adjust how we respond to and manage COVID-19 in aged care.
Key information on some of this evolving work is set out below.
Booster clinics for residential aged care: Commonwealth vaccine administrators will contact you to confirm your in-reach service
The recommended dose interval between a second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and a booster dose will be reduced from 5 months to 4 months from the beginning of January 2022. If your facility has not had a booster clinic, a Commonwealth vaccine provider will contact you to schedule a clinic for January. For those who have a clinic scheduled, your vaccine provider may also call you to discuss bringing the date forward.
The booster clinic will be available to aged care residents and workers. Given the vulnerability of residents, all eligible residents and workers should avail themselves of this opportunity as a priority. Staff unable to attend a scheduled booster clinic can access a booster via the more than 10,000 vaccination sites, including GPs, Pharmacies and state clinics.
Rapid Antigen Testing
Further to the announcement on 23 December 2021, the Australian Government will provide access to rapid antigen test (RAT) kits to all residential aged care facilities across the country over the coming weeks. Deliveries will commence for NSW from the 31 December, for Victoria on 3 January and Queensland from 4 January. Deliveries for other jurisdictions other than Western Australia will commence shortly.
If your facility is in scope for the initial distribution, you will receive a phone call from EBOS Healthcare, acting on behalf of the Commonwealth Department of Health. EBOS Healthcare will need to confirm key details, including delivery details. You will also be provided with an email containing a link to a mandatory online training module.
RAT Kits supplied through this process are for screening staff, regular visitors, and residents, where appropriate. It is recommended that all staff and regular visitors are tested every 72 hours (3 days), alongside other screening practices such as monitoring for symptoms and not attending work if unwell.
If visitors, staff or residents return a positive test, you should follow the requirements in your local jurisdiction. Further details on state-specific responses can be found on the Department of Health’s website.
All RACFs with an outbreak can access RAT kits through the National Medical Stockpile. If this applies to you, we encourage you to work with your Commonwealth Case Manager to access necessary supports.
There are a range of RAT products approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration and available for use across Australia. The tests supplied by the Australian Government may be different to those you have previously used in the facility or in your own home. To assist, you will be provided with product-specific information when the delivery is arranged to ensure safe and effective use.
If RATs are already in use in your facility, we encourage you to continue to use these tests to screen your staff and regular visitors upon entry.
PCR Testing and management of close contacts and positive cases
We acknowledge the challenges for COVID-19 testing capabilities across the country and the flow on impact this is having on residential aged care facilities.
Where on site swabbing teams or collection kits cannot be quickly accessed, RATs can be used as an effective testing alternative.
Your local Public Health Unit may also declare an outbreak within a facility on the basis of positive RAT results if there are also symptomatic residents.
The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) notes that for effective control of outbreaks, different management approaches will be needed for contacts in closed, high-transmission settings, particularly when there are a large number of individuals at risk of developing severe disease.
The National Cabinet has agreed that the isolation period for COVID-19 cases should be standardised to a length of 7 days. Further information is available in the AHPPC Statement and National Cabinet statement from 30 December 2021.
Arrangements for management of contacts in residential aged care facilities can be managed, in consultation with the local public health unit, to allow business continuity. This includes taking a risk-based approach to staff furloughing and to cohorting or isolation within the facility.
Staff furlough policies
We also recognise that, with the high number of cases in the community, cases in staff at residential aged care facilities are more likely. Alongside ongoing discussions on the appropriate management of close contacts, the AHPPC is also considering interim guidance on work permissions and restrictions for workers in residential aged care facilities.
This interim guidance considers the significant vaccination coverage in Australia, including mandatory vaccination in aged care workers, the ongoing booster vaccination program, and the need to balance the risk to safe and quality care of residents.
Local Public Health Units are responsible for considering when to furlough staff or apply additional restrictions. The AHPPC is developing a consistent national framework to support these decisions, to be considered by National Cabinet next week. This framework will outline a risk-based approach where staff can continue working with alternative mitigations such as more regular screening and testing or additional PPE.
A copy of the revised framework will be provided once agreed.
Private hospital arrangements
The Australian Government is continuing to work collaboratively with the states and territories on options for transfers to both public and private hospitals, where clinically indicated or supported for public health reasons such as allowing safe cohorting onsite. Part of this includes assessing options for private hospitals to be utilised for both care and additional workforce.
States and territories continue to assess their system capacity and are finalising contracts with private operators as appropriate. Private hospitals have been used for this purpose in New South Wales and Victoria, with arrangements in place in other jurisdictions to ensure residents receive the appropriate level of care needed. All states and territories can activate arrangements quickly if cases escalate and the need is warranted. This includes dedicated support for residential aged care facilities through both workforce support and private hospital beds.
Australian Government support during an outbreak
In the event of an outbreak, the Commonwealth will appoint a case manager who is the Commonwealth’s single point of contact for the residential aged care facility. The case manager will identify and address the needs of the RACF and if required, enable access Commonwealth supports such as personal protective equipment (PPE) where the service’s existing supply channels are not available. The Commonwealth is prioritising requests for PPE from the National Medical Stockpile to aged care services that are most in need. If you urgently need PPE and cannot source it, please submit an online application. For multi-site providers, if you have a site in an outbreak, consider redistribution to that service to maintain continuity of PPE while your orders are pending, or emergency stocks are in transition from Commonwealth or state emergency stockpiles.
The COVID-19 Aged Care Support Program Extension Grant (GO4863) also remains open to reimburse providers for additional eligible costs incurred in managing a direct impact of COVID‑19.
- increased staffing costs as a result of implementing an enhanced roster or infection control processes in a service with residents/clients who are infected or isolated due to COVID-19
- increased costs to replace existing staff who are infected or isolated due to COVID-19
- the purchase of additional PPE
- the purchase of additional products / services to manage cleaning and infection control
- equipment and resources
- waste removal costs.