There’s no surprise that the New Zealand Ministry of Health is strongly advocating for aged care reform. A year ago, ‘high-risk’ was not a term necessarily applicable to aged care facilities. Despite the vulnerabilities that come with age, ‘high-risk’ was more appropriate to public hospitals, those acutely unwell, or the immunocompromised.

Fast forward to 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic threat moved anyone 65 years and older into a ‘high-risk’ category. Although COVID-19 did not discriminate, older generations were at an increased risk and subsequently over-represented in mortality rates worldwide.

It was feared aged care facilities were at highest risk for an outbreak, and sadly this was the case. By early April 2020, New Zealand was experiencing a number of significant aged care clusters. Of the five NZ aged care clusters, three were of unknown origin and two were traced back to overseas travel. New Zealand experienced 22 deaths in total and all were between the ages of 60–90 years. 

On 28 May, 2020, The Ministry of Health released an Independent Review of COVID-19 Clusters in Aged Residential Care Facilities. The report found that pandemic preparedness in facilities was sadly lacking.

“While all anticipated the impact of a pandemic in general, no facilities were prepared for the impact of a positive case, let alone an outbreak/cluster”.

Although facilities represented within the report had an IPC lead connected with DHB supports, they underestimated the scale of the pandemic. Few IPC (Infection Prevention and Control) leads or facilities had ever faced such significant staffing shortages.

What should the aged care reform cover?

The report identified that although facilities had faced viral lockdowns in the past, a number confirmed this was “their first experience of one of a virus outbreak which prompted a review of IPC policies, best practice, and PPE supply”.

New Zealand notably lacked national IPC guidance and protocols. The report strongly advocates for the collaboration of facilities, DHB, PHU and the Ministry to develop a national outbreak management policy with appropriate communication channels, leadership roles and formalised reporting processes. The aged care reform will include policies that encompass IPC strategies, staff and resident management and support, screening, resident transfers and admissions, supply and application of PPE, isolation and lockdown.

The report additionally recommends a review of IPC Standards with a view to formulate a national IPC strategy. This coincides with the current review of the Health and Disability Services Standards (NZS 8134: 2008), which have a targeted focus for Age-Related Residential Care Services. They are expected to publish an update in June 2020.

Bug Control have been helping aged care facilities across Australia and New Zealand throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. We use evidence-based best practice to help keep facilities safe and infection-free. If you want advice on how you can better manage infections in your facility, COVID-19 or otherwise, why not contact Bug Control for an obligation-free consultation?