Disability residents put on backburner during vaccine rollout to focus on aged care

Tags Health and Wellbeing Government

Posted 3 months ago by Liz Alderslade

The Department of Health admitted that aged care residents were prioritised over disability residents during the initial COVID-19 vaccine rollout. [Source: Senate Committee]
The Department of Health admitted that aged care residents were prioritised over disability residents during the initial COVID-19 vaccine rollout. [Source: Senate Committee]

The COVID-19 vaccination of aged care residents has been prioritised over disability facility residents, a Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 heard on Tuesday.

Based on evidence from the Department of Health, the Committee was also told that only 1,460 disability residents had received at least one vaccination, 6.5 percent of that vulnerable cohort, and 25,000 residents in disability facilities are still waiting.

Department of Health officials admitted that there was a slower start to vaccinating people in aged care than expected, resulting in more resources being provided to that area.

Senator Katy Gallagher expressed surprise that within Phase 1a there were sub-priority vulnerable groups, which officials stated isn't how they would describe it.

Caroline Edwards, Associate Secretary for the Department of Health told the Committee, "So disability facilities have been a much slower start than when we would have liked.

"...When we discovered aged care residents was a more difficult and lengthy process than we anticipated, we did focus on aged care residents.

"Not because disability residents are any less priority, but because we know that the absolute most at risk people in the community, both during what we experienced here and overseas and through medical advice, are elderly people in aged care facilities."

Brendan Murphy, Secretary of the Department of Health, and Ms Edwards both stated that the risk of COVID-19 in disability facilities was lower due to the nature of the smaller accommodation facilities and the people being much younger.

He reiterated that aged care and disability residents are both extremely high priority groups, however, the risk of severe illness and death is significantly greater in the residential aged care population.

"The single biggest risk of death and severe COVID is age… Whilst we did intend originally to do disability and aged care together, the complexity of aged care meant that we had to prioritise to get that group protected at the same time as getting disability started," explains Mr Murphy.

"We are very cognisant of the fact that we need to now ramp up as aged care is coming to completion and rapidly get into disability care."

Mr Murphy added that the first two phases, Phase 1a, which includes aged care and disability residents, and 1b, which includes other vulnerable groups, have now been merged for efficiency of the program. He also says that the Government has expressed to the Department that disability resident vaccination is a very high priority.

Senator Gallagher raised her concerns that the Government had initially given targets of all people in Phase 1a would be vaccinated within six to eight weeks, which officials said they don't recall being the case.

Disability advocates have expressed shock and anger on social media about disability residents not being made a priority, with Senator Jordon Steele-John blasting the Government for "excluding us from the vaccine rollout".

"It's abundantly clear that the Morrison Government [doesn't] care about the safety of disabled people; they treated us like second class citizens during their initial response to [COVID-19] and they're doing it again in their bungled vaccine roll-out," says Senator Steele-John.

Chief Executive Officer of Australian Federation of Disability Organisations (AFDO), Ross Joyce, tweeted that he was appalled to hear that there were sub-priority groups in Phase 1a, which was news to the disability community.

Minister for Health and Aged Care, Greg Hunt, told ABC Radio National Breakfast this morning that, "We were always going to do this in stages based on the highest risk where our elderly aged care residents - sadly as we know, 685 of the 910 people who were lost to COVID last year were in aged care homes - that has been the highest of the priorities.

"Now we move on the in-reach next week in the disability [facilities] and that follows the order of priority that was already intended."

Shadow Health Minister Mark Butler told media today people with disability were "abandoned" during the vaccine rollout.

"Evidence before the Senate Committee yesterday confirmed that two thirds of residents of aged care facilities still haven't been fully vaccinated and shockingly, more than 99 percent of residents in disability facilities have still not been fully vaccinated," says Minister Butler.

"Australians living with disability have been abandoned by Scott Morrison in this vaccine rollout. Still, the Government won't release data on how many of the frontline workers caring for Australians in aged care and disability facilities have been vaccinated."