How did we end up here? Plotting the course of an unfolding human tragedy

As Victoria recorded an unprecedented 532 cases of coronavirus on Monday, eclipsing the previous national record, Premier Daniel Andrews offered a blunt assessment.

Jul 29, 2020, updated Jul 29, 2020
After outbreaks at aged care facilities early in the pandemic, authorities were quick to place them in lockdown. It is unclear when vaccinations will be enough protection. (AAP Image/Daniel Pockett)

After outbreaks at aged care facilities early in the pandemic, authorities were quick to place them in lockdown. It is unclear when vaccinations will be enough protection. (AAP Image/Daniel Pockett)

“We will see more people die, particularly in aged care,” he warned. “The consequences could not be more grave.”

In the day following Andrews’ warning, another four deaths were recorded in aged care facilities across the state. The sector’s week-long toll rose to 32 — more than two-thirds of all fatalities.

With more than 760 active cases relating to outbreaks across aged care facilities in Victoria, families are bracing for more bad news.

So how did we get here? And did we heed warnings about what was to come?

An ominous sign

In early June, many in Victoria were watching coronavirus case numbers decline and had reason to believe the state had turned a corner.

While the aged care sector was no doubt watching outbreaks at Dorothy Henderson Lodge and Newmarch House in Sydney closely, a similar scenario must have seemed unlikely to eventuate further south.

On June 6, Victoria recorded no new cases of COVID-19 for the first time since March, and the longed-for return to classroom learning for Victoria’s schoolchildren only three days later seemed to mark the beginning of a new, coronavirus-free era.

But the reprieve was short-lived.

As restrictions continued to ease across the state, coronavirus cases were quietly rising, in what has come to mark the start of a “second wave”.

On June 17, 21 cases were recorded — the highest number in a month. It was an ominous sign.

“A day like this can make me nervous,” Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said of the spike in cases, most of which were in hotel quarantine.

With shocking speed, the recharged virus began to spread through the community, with outbreaks first locking down nine public housing towers.

The difference a few weeks makes

As the days passed, a steady increase in new cases meant outbreaks in aged care homes began to receive more prominence.

On July 7, the Victorian Government noted a new case had been confirmed in a staff member at an aged care facility in Rosanna.

The next day, another five cases were linked to aged care services, this time in the suburbs of Kensington, Werribee, Preston and Kew.

One week later, authorities were investigating 40 new cases linked to three outbreaks at facilities in Essendon, Moonee Valley and Fawkner.

As of Tuesday, there were 769 active cases relating to outbreaks across more than 60 aged care facilities in Victoria — including residents and workers.

“Personally I have found the last week very distressing to see the number of outbreaks that we have had across our aged care sector in Victoria and also the number of fatalities that we have had,” Health Minister Jenny Mikakos said.

“I want to acknowledge the grief of all of those families who have lost a loved one, a very much-loved member of their family, in recent days.”

Why nursing homes?

Workplaces have been a common site for coronavirus clusters.

Earlier this month Daniel Andrews said about 80 per cent of the state’s new infections so far in this round of cases had been “driven by transmission in workplaces, including private-sector aged care”.

Meat processing, call centres and distribution centres have all been hotspots, along with retail stores and a law firm which hadn’t let staff work from home.

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But aged care is different.

Not only are other workers exposed — and then those on their commutes and their families and friends — so are some of the community’s most vulnerable.

Some outbreaks are linked to staff who worked across multiple facilities — inadvertently helping the deadly virus spread further and faster. Measures are being put in place to limit workers to one facility.

Where are we now?

Between Monday and Tuesday alone, an additional 86 cases were recorded in aged care facilities across Victoria, affecting residents as well as their carers.

Current outbreaks now include:

  • 88 cases linked to Estia’s aged care home in Ardeer
  • 86 cases linked to St Basil’s Home for the Aged in Fawkner
  • 82 cases linked to Epping Gardens, in Epping
  • 76 cases linked to Kirkbrae Presbyterian Homes in Kilsyth
  • 62 cases linked to Menarock Life’s aged care home in Essendon
  • 53 cases linked to Glendale Aged Care in Werribee
  • 51 cases linked to Baptcare’s Wyndham Lodge in Werribee
  • 50 cases linked to Estia’s aged care home in Heidelberg
  • 40 cases linked to Outlook Gardens aged care in Dandenong North
  • 39 cases linked to Arcare’s aged care home in Craigieburn

What happens next

The Federal Government has since established a response centre designed to coordinate and expand resources for tackling the virus in Victoria’s aged care services.

The Victorian Aged Care Response Centre will bring together Commonwealth and state government agencies at the State Control Centre in Melbourne in a coordinated effort to manage the impact of the pandemic across facilities.

Two men kit up in protective gear to do coronavirus testing

The Federal Government has since established a response centre to coordinate and expand resources to tackle the virus in Victoria’s aged care services. (Photo: AAP: Daniel Pockett)

“Some of the stories we’ve seen are unacceptable and I wouldn’t want my mum in some of those places,” Mr Andrews said.

“We don’t run this sector, but the residents in these homes are all Victorians.

“The Commonwealth Government have asked for help and that is exactly what my Government and our agencies will provide to them.”

– ABC / Bridget Judd and Catherine Taylor

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