There are warnings more than half of all residential aged care centres in Australia will have COVID-19 outbreaks by the end of the week, placing increasing strain on an already stretched workforce.
The latest data shows there were more than 7,000 active cases among residents, spread across about 1,100 facilities, representing around 40 per cent of the sector.
In just a week, the number of active COVID-19 cases in residential aged care facilities has more than doubled from 3,205 to the current figure.
Aged and Community Services Australia (ACSA) CEO Paul Sadler said that number is expected to continue to rise, placing more pressure on the workforce.
"We believe we’ll go to more than half of the aged care homes in Australia having outbreaks by the close of this week,” he told SBS News.
“It’s an exponential growth and very worrying for the residents and the family and staff.”
The latest breakdown of COVID-19 cases showed 425 facilities impacted in New South Wales, 356 in Victoria, 155 in South Australia, 133 in Queensland, 22 in Tasmania, one in the Northern Territory, and 15 in the Australian Capital Territory.
Rising COVID-19 infections have placed pressure on the aged care workforce, with National Cabinet last week moving to change isolation rules amid ballooning staff shortages.
These rules allow close contacts without symptoms to return to work if they’re asymptomatic and pass a negative rapid antigen test (RAT).
Mr Sadler said some aged care homes had witnessed up to 50 per cent of staff forced out of work due to COVID-19 infections or having to self-isolate, but more RATs were needed to allow workers to return.
“They are past breaking point,” he said.
“We are in such dire straits in terms of availability of workforce in aged care."
The federal government has now moved to activate an agreement with private hospitals to make more workers available, in part to grapple with the aged care shortages.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said the private hospitals agreement marked the next stage of its Omicron response plan, which will see up to 57,000 nurses and more than 100,000 staff made available to the public hospital system.
"It's a workforce which is skilled, planned, appropriate and available," Mr Hunt told reporters in Canberra on Tuesday.
"The states and territories will, where necessary, work directly with the staff and with the hospitals themselves … it will be up to the states and territories to activate those."
Speaking at an aged care facility, Federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese on Tuesday criticised the government for not adequately preparing the sector against the surge of cases.
"People in aged care are really suffering,” he said.
“A lack of RATs means our elderly loved ones have been left alone and in isolation, unable to see loved ones, unable to see workers who are looking after them.”
The government has already delivered 5.6 million RATs to aged care facilities since August.
Mr Hunt said 10 million more medical items, including rapid tests and personal protective equipment, would soon be delivered to the aged care sector.
"That's an important additional protection to be made available to our aged care sector," he said.
New government figures also show 1,800 out of 2,700 federally funded aged care services around the country have been visited by medical firms to provide a third dose of a coronavirus vaccine.
It expects all will have had a visit by the end of this month, describing the plan as “ahead of schedule”.
Concerns over disability workforce
Concerns also persist in the disability workforce, with the peak body for National Disability Insurance Scheme providers predicting up to 20 per cent of staff at some organisations are in isolation.
Laurie Leigh, CEO of National Disability Services, said providers were struggling to access RATs amid surging demand - without priority access like their aged care counterparts.
“There is significant pressure being put on disability support providers because of the workforce shortages caused both by workers becoming infected with COVID [and] isolation,” she told SBS News.
She said the group is calling on the government to provide disability service providers with access to RATs.
Labor National Disability Insurance Scheme spokesperson Bill Shorten said earlier he had heard of several people with disability whose care had been disrupted by workforce shortages.
“You can’t say we are living with COVID when people are too scared to leave their house - where care workers can’t get rapid antigen tests and they can’t even go to work,” he told reporters.
The federal government has said 200 million RATs are on order between themselves and state governments.