Private sector aged care giant Estia is battling a third Covid-19 outbreak in Melbourne after two staff members and a resident tested positive at a facility in Keilor Downs.
The ASX-listed Estia is one of Australia’s largest providers and has been among the hardest hit by the pandemic in Melbourne, with two of its Victorian sites linked to 238 cases and both among the five largest aged care outbreaks in the state.
On 4 August, the families of residents at another Estia facility, at Keilor Downs, were told that a staff member had tested positive. A resident has also since returned a positive result. The staff member had last worked on 30 July and informed Estia on 3 August upon receiving their positive result.
Three staff have since been stood down and placed into quarantine, but some family members say they are concerned the company has been too slow to test its workforce.
All residents were tested on Wednesday 5 August, two days after the first staff member informed the company they had tested positive. The testing of staff began only on Friday, the company has told families.
Joe Desira’s 94-year-old mother lives at the facility in Melbourne’s north-west, which is home to about 50 residents.
Desira said he had a lot of empathy for the staff, who were “doing their best”, but he felt Estia was “passing the buck” to Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
“I asked, ‘Have the staff been tested?’ I was told no,” he said, relaying a conversation with an Estia liaison on Thursday. “I said, ‘Why not?’
“‘Oh, DHHS didn’t do the staff.’
“To me it’s unacceptable. It’s like shutting the gate after the horse has bolted. My concern is a week’s transpired. There’s been other people within the nursing home … and they haven’t been tested.”
Desira said his mother had not tested positive and was “fairly coherent”, though she did not entirely understand the situation.
“We talk to her every day. I’m pretty angry because I think the system has fallen to bits,” he said.
Aged care is a federal responsibility regulated by the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission, although Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services also publishes guidelines for providers to follow in the case of an outbreak.
These plans include a checklist for situations where there is a confirmed case in a staff member. It states: “All staff and residents tested for coronavirus (Covid-19).”
The document gives no outline on how quickly this should occur.
An Estia spokeswoman confirmed to Guardian Australia on Friday night that two staff members at Keilor Downs had now tested positive. The resident was taken to hospital on Friday.
“The second employee has been self-isolating since then as part of the contact trace,” she said. “Both employees have not worked at the home since testing positive.”
The spokeswoman said the company had followed DHHS guidelines and had “added extra resources and support in the home to keep families regularly updated about their loved ones”.
Estia’s chief executive, Ian Thorley, held a video town hall-style meeting with families of Keilor Downs residents earlier on Friday in which he said the first worker to test positive had no “signs of the illness at all” when they worked on 30 July.
The worker got tested after their housemate received a positive result. Three workers identified as “close contacts” of the employee by Estia, according to DHHS guidelines, were immediately stood down and placed into isolation, Thorley said.
He told the families on Friday that staff were being tested “during the course of today”. He said the protocols and testing were managed by DHHS.
Melbourne is in the grip of a crisis within the aged care sector, with more than 100 homes linked to outbreaks and 1,548 active cases, including 113 new infections recorded on Friday. Of the 11 new deaths recorded, seven were linked to aged care.
Estia runs 27 aged care sites in Victoria, according to an aged care commission register. The company’s Ardeer home is linked to 144 cases, and a site at Heidelberg West connected to 94 infections.
Only two facilities – St Basil’s, which is part of a coronial investigation following five deaths, and Epping Gardens – have more cases than Estia’s Ardeer site.
Last month Estia’s Ardeer and Heidelberg facilities were sanctioned with a “notice to agree” from the aged care regulator that ordered the company to appoint an independent advisor and not take in any new residents.
A spokeswoman did not respond to a question about whether other homes were also affected.
Part-time and casual aged care workers were last month barred from working across multiple facilities as the sector emerged as the largest source of outbreaks throughout Melbourne.
Estia last week denied separate claims reported by the Herald Sun that staff were forced to work while awaiting a test result. It told the paper that staff who were part of a contact trace for suspected Covid-19 exposure or tested positive had to isolate for at least 14 days and could not work until cleared.
Janet Anderson, the aged care quality and safety commissioner, said: “The commission was advised of a case of Covid-19 at Estia Health Keilor on 4 August 2020.
“The Victorian Department of Health and Human Services is the responsible authority for managing the testing of both staff and residents in residential aged care.”
The DHHS were approached for comment.