Keeping our elders safe in the COVID world

21 March 2022

As the world grows understandably keen to ease restrictions and move on from COVID-19, for our elderly, the invisible threat is not over.

The question is, how do we keep our vulnerable elders safe from an ever-present deadly virus and still meet the social and emotional needs of older people, especially during inevitable outbreaks?

Southern Cross Care Queensland’s (SCCQ) clinical team has a solid track record in preventing the spread of disease in aged care settings, and has drawn on latest best practice state and national guidelines to develop a new approach to keeping COVID at bay without blanket lock-downs across its network of 12 residential aged care homes in South East Queensland.

SCCQ Chief Clinician and Chief of Quality and Governance, Sandra Glaister said a risk-based rather than blanket approach was the key to finding the right balance between infection control and social connection, in the organisation’s latest COVID-Safe Visitor Management Plan, released this week.

“We all saw the images from the early pandemic of elderly people locked in aged care homes and that’s definitely not how we want to treat our much-loved but still vulnerable residents,” Sandra said.

“Our new COVID-Safe plan is a far cry from that, as it ensures safe visitation of loved ones in our homes will always be facilitated, even during inevitable outbreaks, honouring the social and emotional needs of our residents.”

The radical shift in public health direction is possible, Sandra says, largely due to high vaccination rates.

“For more than two years, the world’s best clinical minds have been honed on this issue, much has been learned and the health guidelines have evolved and shifted. With vaccination rates now high – 100% of our staff and more than 90% or our residents – we are now in a very different place.

“Our understanding and management of the virus has matured and we can now make a fundamental shift away from the earlier need to ‘flatten the curve’ to ‘living with COVID’ as a critical part of managing the virus,” she said.

However, ‘living with COVID’ will always remain a different proposition for persons with comorbidities and those who are frail, even with high vaccination rates, Sandra cautions.

During the recent Omicron wave, many residential aged care homes across Queensland were impacted and despite SCCQ’s best-practice infection control measures, eight of its 12 Residential Aged Care homes experienced COVID-19 outbreaks in the three-month period from December to February.

“Thanks to our well-practiced infection control plans, dedicated staff and supportive residents and families of the SCCQ community, we were able to recover, but at a cost.

“Across our eight impacted homes a total of 68 residents fell ill but happily, 61 made a full recovery from COVID-19.  However, tragically, we lost seven lives.  Of those lost, only one person was unvaccinated, but all had one thing in common: all were vulnerable.  Six had at least three co-morbidities and all had a high frailty score,” Sandra revealed.

“I share this not to scare, but so we can appreciate the need to remain vigilant and prepared, especially in aged care, even as the world appears to ‘move on’.

“Under our new plan we are using a ‘traffic light’ risk proportionate matrix to determine the safe visitation level (from severe to low) and the required proven, preventative measures that need to be in place on a case by case basis,” Sandra said.

SCCQ will customise a raft of proven preventative measures to each individual situation which could combine:

  • Risk-based surveillance screening using Rapid Antigen Testing of residents, visitors and staff
  • Risk-based in-room quarantine for up to 72 hours for residents returning to the home
  • Risk-based Personal Protective Equipment use for visitors and staff
  • Risk-based conditions for entry.

“Under our risk matrix, conditions of entry vary depending on the risk level but in every circumstance, we will always facilitate safe ‘Essential visitor’ access,” Sandra said.

What is an Essential visitor?

People who have a close and continuing relationship with the resident, who frequently and regularly visit to provide aspects of regular routine care and companionship to that person.  This may include people who provide personal care, people who support residents with mental health concerns, dementia or cognitive impairment or other support.  Essential visitors can also be known as ‘Partners-in-care’ or a ‘Named visitor’ (nominated by the resident.)

See the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission’s Partnerships in Care Fact Sheet for further information and Queensland Health’s Residential Aged Care Visitor Direction.

For more insight into SCCQ’s latest approach to managing COVID-safe entry to our Residential Aged Care homes, you can also view our Head of Integrated Communities, Senior Registered Nurse Jodi Butler presenting a Town Hall webinar to our SCC Holland Park residents, families and staff on 16 March on Keeping our elders safe in the COVID World.