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Inside the Newmarch cluster

May 11, 2020 • 14m 55s

An aged care facility in NSW is the site of one of Australia’s biggest clusters of Covid-19. Now, with 16 dead, the centre’s owners have been threatened with sanctions and the loss of their licence. Today, Rick Morton on what went wrong at Newmarch House.

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Inside the Newmarch cluster

220 • May 11, 2020

Inside the Newmarch cluster

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am.

An aged care facility in NSW is the site of one of Australia’s biggest clusters of Covid-19.

Now, with 16 dead, the centre’s owners have been threatened with sanctions and the loss of their licence.

Today: Rick Morton on what went wrong at Newmarch House.

**

RUBY:

Rick, when did you first start looking into what was happening at Newmarch House?

RICK:

So a couple of weeks ago, I noticed that there had been some confirmed cases of Covid-19, which began with a worker at a nursing home in far west Sydney. And immediately I felt ill because, you know, I've covered aged care for six, seven years now. I knew what the state of that industry was like. I knew how ill prepared they were for such an outbreak.

RUBY:

Rick Morton is a senior reporter for The Saturday Paper.

RICK:

When I saw this, the numbers start to tick up, I thought, this is not good. We'd already had a flourish. Dorothy Henderson house, another nursing home in the weeks before, and I think thankfully stamped out. But this one kept going.

RUBY:

Mm hmm. And so how and when did Covid-19 first reach the aged care home?

RICK:

It began with the single care worker who, you know, turned up to work with a scratchy throat, quote-unquote. That's what the chief medical officer in New South Wales said. And you know, this worker, health care worker, she, you know, tested positive on April 11.

That's when the nursing home first found out about it. That's when the state government first found out about it. But that was, you know, six days after her last shift. So she'd worked consecutive shifts on april 1, April 2, 3, 4, fifth and sixth. That was essentially patient zero.

RUBY:

So after the first person to have Covid-19 was identified, what happened from thereon.

RICK:

It spread fast. In fact, it spread very fast. A week later, almost exactly on April 18, the first resident at New Much House, which is an Anglicare facility, died from the coronavirus, and from then it spiralled.

Archival tape -- reporter:

This morning, the state chief health officer revealed the number of infections at the nursing home was on the rise.

RICK:

There was almost a death a day over the next two weeks. And on one particularly bad day, there were four.

Archival tape -- reporter:

Families devastated after another death was confirmed this afternoon, taking the overall toll to twelve.

Archival tape -- reporter:

Tonight — 9 News can report the number of confirmed cases has jumped again.

RICK:

It's spreading through the home. It's killing people. But also the number of infections are soaring. First, it was 20, then was 49 or so, and then it was into the 60s. Anthony Bowe, whose 76-year-old mother, Patricia Shei, you know, was one among the first 10 essentially who were diagnosed within Covid-19.

Archival tape -- Ray Hadley:

...and Anthony’s on the line right now. Anthony?

Archival tape -- Anthony Bowe:

Yeah, many thanks for all your help.

Archival tape -- Ray Hadley:

No, it's my pleasure.

RICK:

He told Ray Hadley on 2GB that his mother was put on oxygen and he just didn't know.

Archival tape -- Anthony Bowe:

… I’ve had no contact from any doctor to do with mum’s treatment. I've had no involvement in the treatment plan the whole way long.

RICK:

You know, he was kept in the dark essentially. From April 11 when they found out that this thing was in the nursing home, they locked the facility down. They didn't close the facility, but they stopped visitors coming in. There was a sense of panic, but it wasn't a particularly productive panic.

RUBY:

So Rick - right now, what is the situation at Newmarch House?

RICK:

So now 68 people have Coronavirus who are linked to that facility. It's about half and half residents and staff. But all of the 16 people who have died have been residents. So, you know, it's taken a huge toll on what is a relatively small facility.
And the family members are grieving not just their deaths, but the fact that they've been isolated in their death.

RUBY:

So it sounds like families weren't... well, they weren't allowed to visit, which makes sense, but they also weren't given much information about what was happening inside Newmarch house. So do we have any idea about what was going on behind closed doors?

RICK:

Look, it's incredibly difficult to get a true sense of what happened there because the staff are understandably frightened. In many cases, they've been banned from speaking to the media. But I did get to chat to one care worker - who obviously speaks on condition of anonymity with me - and she was saying that at the start, you know, the managers almost didn't want to believe that this was happening. I mean, when you think of running a nursing home, this is the worst-case-scenario kind of stuff. And, you know, this work will tell me that the kind of panic that resulted from this either resulted in nothing happening or the completely wrong thing happening at the wrong time, which made the effort to control the infection far worse.

You know, and it wasn't until weeks after the first contact was confirmed that the notion of kind of keeping residence quarantined was actually enforced.

RUBY:

So, Rick, while the country is gripped by this pandemic, there's an outbreak at an aged care home, a place that we know is full of vulnerable people. And from what you're saying, it sounds like it took weeks before the residents there were properly quarantined from each other.

RICK:

That's correct. You know, the staff at the home told me that, you know, yes, there was a crackdown on relatives visiting their loved ones and that was necessary in the beginning. But management missed an opportunity, by the sounds of it, to actually quarantine the residents properly. And because of that, things continue to escalate.

And then, what tends to happen is that the fear of this becoming a media story becomes bigger than the fear of controlling the outbreak. And it could have been possible to contain this outbreak at a lower level were it not for this kind of medley of errors at all levels that exposed what were already existing historic systemic failures of the aged care system is why we have a royal commission into this system, because it has been gutted for years and in a way, Covid-19 was uniquely poised to expose all of those existing failures.

RUBY:

We'll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

So Rick, the organisation that runs Newmarch House - Anglicare - is now being investigated by the aged care watchdog. How are they responding?

RICK:

Yeah so late on Wednesday last week, we actually had finally, after a series of escalating compliance notices, we had the aged care watchdog, the Quality and Safety Commission, basically threatened to revoke Anglicare's licence to operate a nursing home if they failed to respond to a litany of serious concerns. On the 7th of May, which is the Thursday, Anglicare CEO Grant Millard put out a statement saying that they have accepted and appointed the independent adviser to Newmarch House, which was recommended by the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission.

For a period of three months, they're also not allowed to bring in any more residents like new residents, which means there's a freeze on Commonwealth funding for new placements and there's a freeze on any potential new income for the aged care operator until they get things sorted out. So this advice will play a key role now in making sure that they meet the standards which they should have been meeting from the very beginning.

RUBY:

While these regulatory issues are being worked through… have family members of the residents in Newmarch House been able to get information about what is going on?

RICK:

Yeah, I mean, they've certainly picked up their game a bit in the last couple of weeks. But, there were some 58 family members who were invited to a meeting, a briefing basically to ask questions about the response and to, I guess, allay some of their fears about what was happening at the home.

But they were - certainly some of them were - labouring under the assumption that that meeting was going to be hosted by officials from Anglicare and from managers at Newmarch House. And it was, you know. Scott Lardner wrote to a bunch of the other family members on April 28 saying that he was incredibly surprised at the Zoom call that happened; He thought it was gonna be with Anglicare officials, Instead, it was with an independent advocacy organisation. And, you know, no criticism of the advocacy organisation, but he basically said I was a bit taken aback and shocked that we weren't getting direct answers to our questions from Anglicare.

And, you know, it's not an ideal set of circumstances, but the least you can do, I suspect, in situations like this is to communicate as efficiently and effectively as you can with people who are concerned about what is happening. And if that doesn't happen, then you create more fear and more panic.

RUBY:

Rick - what is the bigger problem here - around our aged care sector’s ability to cope when something like Covid-19 happens?

RICK:

Yeah, I mean, they were already weak, right? The health system is so well equipped compared to residential aged care. The union, the ANMF did a survey of 2000 aged care workers and they were asking about the response in the sector to Covid-19. And extraordinarily, you know, three-quarters of those surveyed said there had been no increase in staff or hours at nursing homes since the pandemic. And 20 per cent - one fifth - said that they had actually been cutbacks to hours and to staffing level. During a pandemic.

Some of the respondents, fewer than 30 percent of them said that they thought they had access to appropriate personal protective equipment. This is the stuff that frontline workers need to protect themselves from getting coronavirus. And less than a third thought they had access to the right stuff.

RUBY:

Even before Covid-19, we knew that our aged care system had serious problems -- there have been numerous investigations and exposes, a royal commission. So do you have any hope that reform is possible?

RICK:

It's an interesting question because I've been thinking about this in terms of the royal commission because I was always worried about what the government would do with the recommendations because the recommendations are going to cost billions of dollars to implement, right? And before coronavirus, I just couldn't see them making the case.

Whereas now we've had a $200 billion stimulus. But it actually now, I think, becomes harder to argue that you can't make these reforms. This is a sector that really needs. This is not a flash sector. But it's almost like we as a people I'm not saying governments, but we as a people didn't care enough because they were old. In fact, I heard people say that. It’s like “well...they were probably going to die anyway”. I heard people say that. And it's like this differential value in life.

And, you know, I think that is kind of the diagnosis for this sector over many years is that we just do not value the elderly in our society the way that we should. Even if we think we do, when it comes to the crunch when it comes to intervening to save lives, when somebody is very old, I think we fall down a bit on our reckoning, like I think we fall down in the calculus of that. And I think that is what we're seeing with these situations and with aged care as a whole and with the systemic issues over many years is that we didn't care enough.

And people always wondered why I wrote about it. And I'm like, well, look I'm 33 at the moment. I hope to be old one day. You know, that's the general goal. And I've known grandparents in nursing homes, and I've had friends with mothers and fathers in nursing homes who have had horrible conditions earlier on in life than they should have. And we will all grow old and probably have to rely on this system at some point. So there is not a single person in this country who shouldn't care about what happens. And yet somehow we don't.

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RUBY:

Also in the news…

State governments across the country have revealed plans to ease restrictions on social and economic activity after the National Cabinet signed off on a staged approach last Friday.

In NSW, gatherings of up to 10 people will be permitted from Friday. Cafes and restaurants will also be able to host up to 10 people at a time, and outdoor gyms and playgrounds will open, as will outdoor pools.

In WA indoor and outdoor non-work gatherings of up to 20 people will be permitted, while restaurants and cafes will be allowed to open dine-in services for up to 20 patrons, provided they adhere to the four square metre density rule.

The rule will apply to pubs, bars, community clubs, hotels and the casino.

Most other states have announced similar moves. The Victorian government is expected to reveal its staged easing of restrictions today.

**

And in the US, former President Barack Obama has described the Trump administration’s response to Covid-19 as an "absolute chaotic disaster".

Obama described the current situation as a reminder of why strong government is important, and urged Democrats to actively engage with Joe Biden's White House campaign.

Obama made the comments on a phone hook-up with former members of his administration.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

An aged care facility in NSW is the site of one of Australia’s biggest clusters of Covid-19. Now, with 16 dead, the centre’s owners have been threatened with sanctions and the loss of their licence. Today, Rick Morton on what went wrong at Newmarch House.

Guest: Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton.

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem. Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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220: Inside the Newmarch cluster