When Melinda Holmes , she was worried about her father, Garth, who was living in a locked-down Sydney aged care home and waiting for his COVID-19 booster vaccine.
Garth had his second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in April 2021, but eight months later, with Australia's booster rollout well underway and amid the spread of the Omicron variant, there was still no word on when he would get his third.
He never did.
Garth contracted COVID-19 on 9 January and died alone in hospital on 17 January.
“He spent the last three weeks of his life completely alone,” Melinda said.
The family weren't able to be with him or take him from the aged care home to get his booster shot, as the home was in lockdown from Boxing Day due to a staff member contracting the virus.
“We were totally in shock and very upset to lose him, but particularly because we weren't able to see him. That made it really hard.”
Melinda was told her father’s condition had worsened and he'd been taken to hospital on 16 January.
Garth Holmes died on 17 January after contracting COVID-19 Source: SBS
This week, Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care Services Richard Colbeck was criticised for days earlier.
Senator Colbeck, who is also the Minister for Sport, said he and other officials did not attend the Senate hearing on 14 January because diverting time away from the Omicron outbreak response would “impact the urgent and critical work” being undertaken.
His parliamentary register of interests shows he accepted tickets to the Ashes Test in Hobart on 14, 15 and 16 January.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Senator Colbeck said the minister attended various meetings on 14 January, including with the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commissioner, the acting Secretary of Health, and deputy chief health officer on specific aged care matters.
The decision for Senator Colbeck to attend the Ashes was made as part of his job as sports minister and as a Tasmanian senator, they added.
“It should also be noted, play for the day/night match did not start until late afternoon.”
Melinda said hearing the reports about Senator Colbeck following her father's death made her angry.
“Ministers are people, they need to be able to have recreation and downtime. But to not go to a meeting about COVID when you're the aged care [services] minister, when it's a matter of life and death for those people in aged care, the management of COVID … we expect our ministers to help us to manage it as well as possible.”
Her family are heartbroken her father wasn’t able to get his booster.
“We think that might have been the difference between him being here today and not being here. We think he deserved to be able to get a booster.”
That might have been the difference between him being here today and not being here. We think he deserved to be able to get a boosterMelinda Holmes
The Commonwealth is in charge of running on-site booster clinics at aged care facilities, though homes have the option to organise for residents to be vaccinated through a local GP or pharmacist.
Melinda said she does not blame the “amazing” staff in the home and hospital with whom her father spent his last days as they were operating “as best as they could in a very difficult situation”.
“We just don’t understand why there weren't boosters [for my father] and why the cricket was more important than managing those issues and looking after the health of people in aged care.”
Senator Colbeck's spokesperson said his “commitment and dedication in his role as Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care Services has never been greater”.
“He is in daily contact with department officials and weekly contact with aged care stakeholders, often engaging directly with providers affected by outbreaks.”
“At a time when the Australian government continues to work to protect the lives of senior Australians in care, attempts by the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 to redirect resources away from the Department of Health for political purposes is of serious concern and should be noted by Australians as we navigate the impact of the pandemic.”
Aged care COVID crisis
The prevalence of COVID-19 across the aged care sector has increased exponentially in recent weeks,. , there were 19,059 active cases of COVID-19 in aged care residents and workers across Australia on 20 January. On 17 December, there were just 213.
There were also 1,198 aged care facilities experiencing outbreaks on 20 January, up from 54 on 17 December. By 20 January, there had already been 163 aged care COVID-19 deaths this year. There were 282 across the whole of 2021.
Aged care residents were among the first groups to have access to booster shots when the rollout launched in November.
The Morrison government's initial vaccine rollout to aged care homes was criticised as being too slow, and data shows the booster rollout also slowed over the Christmas break amid fresh outbreaks and staff shortages.
In a statement, the Department of Health said 85 per cent of Australia’s approximately 2,650 nursing homes had now received an on-site booster clinic and the Commonwealth was working to schedule the rest of the homes by the end of January.
“Where there is an outbreak the department is working with immunisation providers to prioritise these facilities,” a spokesperson said.
The Department did not respond to questions about how many residents had received a booster shot.
By 25 January, 1,209,234 total vaccine doses had been administered in aged and disability care settings, according to government data.
In the lead-up to Christmas, Melinda visited her father at the care home with some family members but they were forced to interact through a window.
Melinda went to visit her father in the lead-up to Christmas, but she was forced to interact with him through the aged care facility's window. Source: SBS
It would be the last time Melinda would see her father alive.
Melinda now hopes all aged care residents awaiting their booster shots can get them as soon as possible and has a message for those with loved ones in such settings.
“If your nursing homes are not locked down and your loved one hasn't had a booster, take them out as soon as you can and get that booster. We had been under the belief that the booster would be provided within the environment quickly and faster than we could get it to him outside.”
“We need to get [boosters into aged care homes] urgently. We can prevent unnecessary suffering and death … and reduce the unnecessary suffering that is experienced by families and those people who are basically dying alone.”
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