The aged care sector has warned that a pledge of additional military assistance will not be enough to solve the “stark” staff shortages linked to the current Covid-19 wave, which has seen the number of active outbreaks and the weekly death toll nearly double in a single month.

The federal government announced overnight it would extend Australian defence force support for aged care from its previous August endpoint until the end of September, plus boost the available military workforce by more than 200 personnel to help the sector cope with the current Omicron wave.

The one-month extension has been welcomed by unions and providers, but questions linger as to why just 24 troops were deployed into the aged care sector as of last week.

“To be frank, aged care needs every bit of help it can get at the moment,” said Annie Butler, federal secretary for the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF).

Government data continues to show a deteriorating situation in residential aged care. The number of active outbreaks in the week ending 22 July was 1,013, up from 627 at the start of the month. The weekly death toll for the last two weeks on record was 114 and 132 respectively, up from 58 for the week ending 1 July.

Aged care minister, Anika Wells, said as of Monday there were 983 outbreaks, affecting more than 6,000 residents and 3,250 staff.

The Aged & Community Care Providers Association (ACCPA), an industry peak group, welcomed the additional ADF support but warned it would not be enough. Paul Sadler, the association’s interim chief executive, said providers were generally reporting roughly 10% of their workforce was sick with Covid.

One residential provider in Ballina had warned ACCPA its staff numbers were down 20%. A home care provider in Queensland had reported it was short 40% of its staff.

“[The government] is making about 250 personnel available; we’re hearing from aged care providers that they’ve often got 10% of their staff unavailable,” Sadler told Guardian Australia.

“In residential aged care, that’s about 27,000 workers not available, and in home care another 15,000 unavailable. So the numbers are quite stark.”

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The sector is otherwise far more prepared than earlier Covid waves. Sadler said rapid antigen tests, antiviral treatments, and personal protective equipment were more widely available across the country, while federal figures show fourth dose vaccination rates across aged care residents was near 77%.

“Having said all that, we’ve still got this big weakness in workforce,” Sadler said.

Private health contractors like Aspen are also providing surge workforce capacity, but Sadler warned they are coming from the same finite pool of aged care workers that the industry already relies on.

Wells said the government’s surge workforce program – which includes private contractors and the ADF – filled 2,082 shifts last week. The United Workers Union last week called the surge program “a drop in the ocean” compared to what was needed, considering there are 350,000 aged care workers nationwide.

Wells told Radio National on Monday that the government “simply cannot find the staff” to fill more shifts.

“People are doing double shifts. People are working every single day without breaking [in] what is an incredibly stressful environment. These shortages are not new. These shortages speak to the years of neglect by the previous government,” she said.

Carolyn Smith, aged care director for the United Workers Union, said she believed the low ADF deployment may be a combination of aged care facilities not requesting ADF troops, and the ADF not previously offering up enough personnel for deployment.

“It’s a bit of mystery,” Smith said.

Butler said the ANMF believed there was “confusion” about how to request military assistanceand that some centres may have been reluctant to admit they needed it. She suggested the federal government provide clearer guidance on how to request help.

A Department of Defence spokesperson said in a statement that it “provides personnel to support aged care facilities across all states and territories as determined by the Department of Health” and supports requests “where appropriate”.

“The Department of Health and Aged Care is responsible for determining where Defence support is best prioritised,” the spokesperson said.

“All requests for assistance from aged care facilities accepted by the Department of Health and tasked to the ADF have been supported.”

A Department of Health spokesperson said providers can access workforce support “where deemed necessary”, once they have “exhausted their own internal and external staffing pathways”.

“Where these pathways are unsuccessful, providers may turn to these supports to fill an immediate gap while they attempt to find a longer-term solution.”

Smith encouraged aged care facilities to request assistance where required.

“Maybe they’ve just been so busy they can’t get their head up and ask for help,” she said. “But now, knowing they can have it, that has to help the providers. Hopefully they will put their hand up.”

Butler said she was buoyed up by the ANMF last week being named to join the aged care advisory taskforce giving advice to the federal Australian Health Principal Protection Committee.

“We will be having regular contact with the department and minister’s office. [Information] often gets to the department far too late; what we know doesn’t always get there,” she said.

Source: The Guardian