Australia’s COVID-19 care failures - an insider spills the beans

An operations review by a prominent Australian not-for-profit care provider has lifted the lid on what’s gone wrong so far in the way we care for those most at risk during the pandemic.

Key Points

  • A new health system report details key failures in the government’s response to COVID-19
  • Unnecessary confusion was caused by poor lines of communication
  • Additional resourcing is needed to deal with staffing needs including staff absences and upskilling

Among other suggestions, Catholic health and aged care operators are calling on government to create clear lines of communication to avoid the confusion that beset the sectors at the height of the COVID pandemic.

The ‘Lessons Learnt from COVID-19’ review is critical of unnecessary confusion and pressures placed on its operations by governments:

  • multiple and repetitious information requests
  • junior staff in the bureaucracy as contacts, and
  • a surge workforce that was untrained and unprepared to work with COVID-affected patients.

The report was compiled by Catholic Health Australia in conjunction with Australian Catholic University, and surveyed executives from four major providers in Victoria: Mercy Health, St John of God Healthcare, St Vincent’s Health Australia and Villa Maria Catholic Homes.

It found that while Australia's medical system and governments could claim credit for beating COVID-19, the operators and bureaucracies could learn valuable lessons from the experience, which saw them forced to adapt quickly from planned – but ultimately inaccurate – scenarios.

Aged care homes not hospitals

Unlike in Europe and other countries, the vast majority of COVID cases and deaths in Australia occurred in aged care facilities, particularly in Victoria, and not in hospitals, which were expecting their intensive care units to be inundated with cases.

The report found that facilities that performed well during the pandemic exhibited:

  • Strong leadership that put in place a centralised team that was able to adapt quickly and efficiently to the different scenarios
  • A willingness to make difficult decisions independent of government
  • Good regular communication with staff, patients and residents and their families
  • The purchasing of PPE stocks in advance and the proper training of staff in how to use them
  • Deciding early to implement a policy that banned staff working across multiple sites.

Where things went wrong

The report found the human factor posed a significant challenge:

  • A large number of staff early on in the pandemic refused to come to work or were placed on leave due to an infection in their ranks
  • Fatigue among all levels of staff and an abiding fear of infection also took their toll, resulting in a significant burden on management to ensure staff wellbeing was maintained
  • The trauma of barring visits to aged care residents also created problems, even though some operators relaxed their protocols out of compassion to accommodate those who were dying or in distress
  • Lack of senior expertise in public health units
  • Absence of a pandemic plan
  • Requests for data from multiple government agencies every day
  • The ability to absorb multiple daily announcements by both the Victorian and federal governments
  • Poor training of the surge workforce, and their accommodation at large distances from their allocated temporary workplace

Future pandemics and recommendations to government

Catholic Health Australia CEO Pat Garcia said the review’s findings served as a template for what to do, and what not to do, in future pandemics.

Recommendations for Government

  1. Allocate one line of communication to prevent confusion of messages from multiple departments
  2. Federal and State/Territory Governments must develop a single voice for communication with health services
  3. Federal and State/Territory Governments must maintain public health capacity and expertise to take a lead in providing best practice and standard protocols for pandemic management
  4. Additional resources need to be made available to health services to manage the increased need for furloughing of staff, infection control procedures, upskilling of staff and contact tracing
  5. The different needs of health services need to be individually negotiated regarding issues such as staff furlough and the surge workforce.

Source: Catholic Health Australia