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Eight staff working at St Basil’s with the Morrison government’s private nursing provider, Aspen Medical, allegedly held a party at a Mantra hotel while off-duty at the height of the outbreak at the aged care home.
Six of the eight workers later contracted COVID-19, a leaked Victoria Police brief to the coroner says. Aspen Medical has disputed whether the party involved its staff.
The St Basil’s outbreak was among a cluster of aged care disasters in Victoria’s second wave in 2020.Credit:Justin McManus
Aspen Medical was paid $45 million by the Morrison government to supply “world-class” nursing teams to aged care homes suffering coronavirus outbreaks.
Despite its contract, the provider could not secure enough carers to help residents at St Basil’s when the facility’s COVID-19 crisis was at its worst and the home fell into chaos.
State Coroner John Cain is investigating the deaths of 45 residents who contracted COVID-19 at St Basil’s Homes for the Aged in July and August last year. The residents had an average age of 85. Just 49 of the 237 residents and staff at St Basil’s avoided contracting coronavirus.
On Tuesday, Aspen Medical national clinical manager for COVID-19 Kristi Payten appeared at the coronial inquest for the company, which since March 2020 has won $1.4 billion in work from the federal Health Department.
Used PPE and other waste piles up outside St Basil’s in Fawkner at the height of last year’s deadly outbreak.Credit:Penny Stephens
Former Howard government health minister Michael Wooldridge was on the company’s board until November 2019 and on Tuesday was still listed as one of Aspen’s federal lobbyists.
The federal Health Department signed a $16 million contract with Aspen Medical in April 2020 to supply staff to federally funded aged care homes that were experiencing serious COVID-19 outbreaks. The value of that contract was later boosted to $44.96 million.
“Under the contract,” Peter Rozen, QC, counsel assisting Judge Cain, told the coroner, “Aspen was to provide ‘experienced nurse first responders’ and aged care emergency teams made up of nurses and personal care workers, who were to be deployed immediately to care homes as needed.”
“The Commonwealth was not only looking for Aspen to provide staff, but to provide staff that were capable,” Mr Rozen said on Tuesday.
Ms Payten conceded staffing levels supplied to St Basil’s were not adequate, but also pointed out that a number of aged care outbreaks in Victoria at the time meant it was almost impossible to hire enough health workers.
Aspen deployed staff into the home on July 21 last year – after Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton furloughed all staff at St Basil’s because of the rapid spread of coronavirus – but it quickly became clear the company had no ability to deliver what it was contracted by Canberra to do.
A nurse from the company told police investigating the deaths that some carers brought in to work in St Basil’s after this date “didn’t know how to shower residents as they had been previously employed in community care to do housekeeping and shopping”.
One Aspen employee, Jacinta MacCormack, said the nurses and care workers she was supervising were “really junior and inexperienced”, and said staff “were really struggling to feed residents”.
One report yet to be heard by the court was included in a police interview completed by one carer, Robert McDougall, who in late July stayed at a Mantra hotel near St Basil’s with nursing staff he said were employed as part of Aspen’s surge workforce.
In his statement, Mr McDougall told police he was woken by loud voices about 1am.
“By 3am, the noise in the hallway was continuing. I opened my door to confront whoever was outside. I saw that there were about three or four people coming up to the room opposite mine. The room opposite mine had a bunch of Aspen staff staying in it. One was working as a personal care assistant and one worked in the kitchen. I saw two of the people in the hallway kissing on the cheek.”
The police report compiled for the coroner noted Mr McDougall took photos of the party and also states: “Mr McDougall’s employer at the end of the week told him that six out of the eight staff from the Mantra party had tested positive to COVID-19.“
Mr McDougall, who could not be reached, will appear before the inquest next month.
A spokesman for Aspen Medical said that there were several agencies providing staff to St Basil’s who were staying at the Mantra.
“We brought this matter to the attention of the facility manager at St Basil’s at that time, who subsequently conducted an investigation,” he said. “To the best of our knowledge, none of our team members were involved.”
In all, the coroners court has been told, Aspen arranged for just 11 nurses to work at St Basil’s, with the most experienced having two years’ practical work.
A majority had only been registered in 2020. “It is unsurprising that these very junior professionals were overwhelmed by the experience and that several refused to return to work after a few days. Sadly, a number also contracted COVID-19 at St Basil’s”, Mr Rozen said.
The pandemic has increased revenue immensely for Aspen. Its last annual report for the financial year ending in June 2020 showed its revenue jumped from $76 million to $562 million.
Also on Tuesday, during the second of six weeks of hearings into the deaths, Northern Health doctor Sandra Brown described her repeated attempts to warn the Andrews government that Professor Sutton’s plan to stand down dozens of St Basil’s staff was a “shocking idea” that could lead to the deaths of many residents at the aged care home.
Professor Sutton will appear before the inquest on Friday.
Dr Brown, the director of subacute care at Northern Health and a geriatrician, said conditions at St Basil’s had disintegrated so badly by late July, after the order by Professor Sutton, that either St Basil’s COVID-negative staff should be brought back to the home or the army brought in.
Spiros Vasilakis, a family member whose 81-year-old mother Maria died after contracting COVID-19 at St Basil’s, also appeared and pleaded with Judge Cain to make substantial findings against the managers of St Basil’s. “Those who were in aged care homes should have been the most protected. And yet look where we are today?”
The hearing will continue on Wednesday.
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