Nine more people in Victoria have died from Covid-19, taking the death toll from the virus in the state to 92, but there are signs infections are dropping with 295 new cases announced on Wednesday, about 55 linked with community transmission.
The figures came as the prime minister, Scott Morrison, made pointed comments about the outbreak, saying what is occurring is not a “second wave” but a “Victorian wave” that is impacting the national economy. The premier, Daniel Andrews, responded: “What it is called is not a concern to me.”
The chief health officer, Prof Brett Sutton, said the bulk of Victoria’s cases were linked to aged care, and while the number of new cases was far below the record 532 announced on Monday, it was too soon for the state to be confident it had passed the peak of the second wave. “Community transmission cases have remained relatively stable, but not at super high levels,” Sutton said.
“The real contribution in today’s numbers, as for the last week or two, have been outbreak-driven, and so the aged care numbers, the increase in each of those facilities on a daily basis, will be a significant contributor.” He said community transmission “hasn’t gone down as much as I would have liked”.
“I certainly wouldn’t say we have definitely passed the peak. We absolutely have to keep watching every day,” Sutton said. The deaths overnight included two people in their 90s, five in their 80s, one in their 70s and one in their 60s, and seven of those were related to the private aged care sector. There are 804 active cases throughout aged care.
On Wednesday afternoon the federal health minister, Greg Hunt, insisted the sector had been “immensely prepared” but that difficult issues in an outbreak were “inevitable”.
“We have had, prior to the Victorian outbreak, less than half-a-percent of facilities affected … as we have warned from the outset, any sector can be vulnerable,” he said.
“What we see, though, is of course community transmission leads to the transmission into workplaces.
“Today has had more difficult news and there will be more difficult news to come over the days and weeks ahead. This is the sad but inevitable part of a major outbreak, as we have seen all around the world. However, importantly, there has been real progress, real progress in cooperation and protection for and in relation to our beautiful older Australians.
“It has been one of our extraordinary achievements that outside of Victoria we have been able to protect and to prevent against this, but where there is major infection, then that reaches in to all different elements and parts of the community.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Morrison described the situation in Victoria’s aged care system as “distressing”. “It has principally come through the infection of staff,” the prime minister said.
“It is very distressing first and foremost to the families of those who have loved ones in aged care facilities,” he said. “The most vulnerable in our community have always been our highest concern when it comes to managing the health issues associated with this pandemic.”
Morrison said 150,000 aged care workers had now completed an online training course on infection control. He said what was occurring was not a “second wave” but a “Victorian wave”.
“It is clear that the Victorian wave that Australians are now experiencing – that’s how I honestly have to describe it, there’s not a second wave that’s going across the rest of the country, that is not occurring. There is a significant Victorian wave, but that Victorian wave is impacting the national economy more broadly.”
Responding to the comments, Andrews said: “What it is called is not a concern to me. The only thing I am focused on is defeating this virus.”
Nurses had filled some 400 aged care shifts across the sector to address shortages caused by aged care staff being off work due to being infected with or exposed to the virus, he said. Hundreds of residents in the worst affected homes had now been transferred to public and private hospitals.
“In general terms, the best way to understand this effort is that if it’s an emergency transfer, those residents will go to a public hospital,” Andrews said. “If it’s a planned transfer where there can be some lead-in time, they will go to the private sector.”
The federal aged care minister, Richard Colbeck, told ABC radio the particularly devastating outbreak at St Basil’s aged care home should be investigated.
“There’s a lot of concern, fear and passion in the community about it,” he said. “I was on a Zoom meeting with families on Sunday night and there were quite a few questions and those people deserve to have their questions answered.” Eighty residents have been moved out of the home.
On Wednesday afternoon, Colbeck told the ABC that the government was “looking at” providing emergency home care packages for families that wanted to remove loved ones from aged care.
“I don’t have the capacity to interfere with the national priority system that exists for home care packages but there are mechanisms we do have and we are having some conversations with some families about taking their family members home,” he said. The minister also stressed families could have confidence in the sector.
Prof Brendan Murphy, the secretary of the federal health department, said aged care could not be completely protected from sustained community transmission. “Despite all the preparation, the infection control planning, the deployment of PPE [personal protective equipment], the pandemic and infection control plans that every facility has created, the restrictions on visitors, staff screenings, all of those cannot protect against [the virus],” he said.
“On top of that, there are already many hospital and healthcare workers who have contracted the coronavirus and there are many hundreds of hospital staff in quarantine and isolation. So the loss of staff with the virus, the loss of staff who are in quarantine, both in the aged care and hospital setting, has a huge strain on the workforce supply.”