Open up visits in aged care, advocates say, as Victoria declares zero cases in homes

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Families must no longer be barred from visiting elderly relatives in aged care after Victorian homes reported no cases of coronavirus for the first time since June.

Advocacy group Aged Care Matters' director Sarah Russell said while it was good to acknowledge the success of eradicating the virus from homes, it was crucial operators immediately allowed the return of normal visiting rights for relatives.

Lifestyle officer Janice Bennet, lifestyle co-ordinator Jamima Van Someren and resident Bet McPherson at Shepparton Villages’ Maculata Place in September.Credit:Joe Armao

“While we’re all celebrating this, there are still aged care homes that are refusing to allow visitors,” Dr Russell said. “They say they’re saving lives, but what type of life is it for an older person not to see the people they love?”

There have been 655 deaths in Victorian aged care homes since the first resident died with coronavirus in July.

With almost 5000 coronavirus infections recorded in residents, workers and their close contacts since then, as the pandemic swept across aged care homes in Melbourne, many homes introduced strict lockdowns to cut risks for residents.

State Minister for Ageing Luke Donnellan said on Thursday that the final cleared case – a health worker – was “a significant milestone”.

“It is critically important that we all remain vigilant and that every step is taken to ensure the sector is better able to withstand any future outbreak,” he said.

There have been just 15 cases of coronavirus recorded in the state’s 178 publicly run residential aged care facilities. Only three of those cases were in residents. There were no deaths in publicly run aged care, although about 80 per cent of government-run homes are in regional Victoria.

The homes also have strict nurse-to-resident ratios, unlike privately run facilities that have none.

Many privately run homes still have restrictions on relatives visiting. Individual providers are responsible for creating their own rules on who is allowed into homes.

Craig Gear is chief executive of the Older Persons Advocacy Network, a federally funded support service that works with residents and families when they have issues with homes.

Mr Gear said most homes in Melbourne had restrictions limiting the time visitors could spend with relatives or elderly friends. This usually meant limiting visits to two hours a day.

He said while homes needed to be able to bring in tighter restrictions if there was an outbreak in the surrounding suburbs, “we want it to be as normal as possible by the time we approach Christmas".

He said homes in the Preston and Shepparton areas had rapidly introduced strict visiting policies when there were coronavirus outbreaks nearby.

“You need to have COVID in the area to be able to put restrictions on,” he said. “If there is no COVID in the local community, we can’t see why there can’t be pre-COVID visitation levels.”

Leading Age Services Australia is the body representing not-for-profit and for-profit homes across the country. Its policy manager Tim Hicks said while there was "cautious optimism" following the final Victorian case being cleared, vigilance was crucial.

And he said homes wanted to increase visitations while following strict health authority directions. "This means ensuring homes have extra staff and resources for strict contact screening and to allow visitors in a safe way," he said. His group had "long called for more staff to safeguard the lives of people in aged care", Mr Hicks said.

Federal Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck said the government welcomed news that the last active case of COVID-19 in the Victorian aged care sector had been cleared.

Mr Colbeck said the Australian Government had been continuously building on its response to COVID-19 in residential aged care since January 2020, with the aged care sector, state and territory governments, and health authorities incorporating lessons from Australia and other countries.

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