An average of just 30 defence force personnel were deployed to aged care facilities across Australia each week while the sector buckled under the latest Covid wave, data shows.
The most recent data details about 3,000 Covid deaths in residential aged care this year alone, dwarfing the toll from the pandemic’s first two years combined.
The grim death toll comes after a spike in cases in July, which placed huge strain on the sector.
Previous analysis by the Guardian showed the number of active Covid cases in the aged care workforce doubled in July, exacerbating existing staff shortages.
The sharp acceleration prompted union concerns about the burden placed on remaining aged care staff, who were left to grapple with more than 1,000 active outbreaks across the sector in the last two weeks of July.
On 24 July, the then defence minister, Richard Marles, announced an extension of Australian defence force support to the sector, saying up to 250 ADF general duties personnel would be available to help aged care facilities, on top of defence medical teams.
But analysis of the government’s weekly surge workforce figures shows the most to be deployed since the minister’s announcement was 47.
Most weeks, the number of deployed ADF personnel was far lower.
The average number of ADF personnel deployed each week since the minister’s announcement was 30. Since 22 July, just 52 new facilities have been aided by ADF personnel, at a time when 1,013 facilities had active outbreaks.
Council on the Ageing chief executive, Ian Yates, said there had been some hesitance on the part of providers to take up the offer of ADF personnel.
“I do know that earlier in the year, when the media generally was jumping up and down about, ‘Let’s bring in the ADF,’ a hell of a lot of providers didn’t want them, because they’re not trained,” Yates said.
“There are things they can do automatically, but they’re not trained to work with very, very frail older people.”
The Aged & Community Care Providers Association, an industry peak group, said it had welcomed ADF involvement, and said generalist teams had improved morale and helped residents stay connected with loved ones, while clinical teams had provided specialist assistance where required.
“ADF involvement has complemented surge workforce arrangements put in place by the government during the pandemic,” the association’s interim chief executive, Paul Sadler, said. “With the decrease in the number of Covid-19 cases in the community and in residential aged care, there has been less demand for workforce support in recent weeks.”
The health department said the ADF support was an “additional emergency measure” to fill immediate gaps, not a long-term solution, and was only intended to be used where providers were experiencing outbreaks but had exhausted their usual internal and external staffing options.
The latest data shows 3,918 Covid-related deaths have occurred in residential aged care since the pandemic began. About 3,000 of them have occurred this year.
The proportion of those who contracted Covid-19 and died is far lower, dropping from 33% in 2020 to 3.5% in 2022, according to the health department.
Yates does not advocate a return to lockdowns in aged care, which he said had a huge impact on residents, but warned: “I do think that as a community, we’ve got somewhat complacent.”
The aged care minister, Anika Wells, said every death in aged care was a tragedy, and that the government had left “no stone unturned” in responding to Covid in aged care.
“One of the first acts of the Albanese Labor government was instituting a five-pillar winter plan to manage aged care’s response to Covid this winter,” she said.
“Due to continued access to antiviral treatments and vaccination, as well as greater preparedness in the sector, we have seen a dramatic reduction in the case fatality rate.”
The ADF is far from the only contributor to the surge workforce. Private health contractors have been filling an average of 2,287 shifts a week since 22 July. The total number of shifts filled by the private workforce during the pandemic is 135,981.
Rebekah Sharkie, independent member for Mayo, has called on the government to investigative what’s behind the spike in deaths of aged care residents with Covid.
“We’ve lost over 3000 people this year, we’re only in September, we lost 231 the previous year, and in the first year of the pandemic, 686. So I think it’s quite reasonable to ask, ‘Why.’”
Sharkie said the government should explore the options to better safeguard people living in aged care settings, for example checking whether greater support to providers to increase ventilation is needed or whether vaccination rates could be a factor.