People with disability are going without basic assistance for days, sleeping in their wheelchairs and going to hospital to receive more support than what they can get at home due to COVID-19 barriers, say disability advocates.
With the daily number of COVID-19 cases in the tens of thousands across NSW and Victoria as the Omicron variant spreads through the community, people with disability are not only at an increased risk of catching the virus but also dealing with a shortage of support workers.
Advocates are calling for immediate action to protect the lives of people with disability as Government COVID-19 strategies have left people making “impossible choices” about their lives and health.
People With Disability Australia (PWDA) President Samantha Connor says in the two worst affected States there is a significant shortage of workers as many are either isolating as close contacts or have contracted COVID-19 themselves.
“It’s also due to workers not being able to get regularly tested to show they can provide COVID-safe services to clients - these workers can’t access rapid antigen tests (RATs) [and] they can’t spend hours every day in a queue for a PCR test,” she explains.
“A significant number of essential workers have been stood down due to COVID.
“What this means is thousands of people with disability who require care and support services every day to live healthy, functional and dignified lives are now left scrambling to find workers who can provide the COVID-safe services they need.”
In some cases unavailable support has left people who use wheelchairs sleeping in them overnight because there is no help to get them into their bed.
Where people with disability have gone to hospital because their safety and health is affected by the unavailability of support workers, Ms Connor says there have also been reports of nurses being asked not to take RATs to limit staff shortages.
“...Which means going to these hospitals to get services could also be potentially dangerous for people with disability as COVID could easily be spreading unchecked in such settings,” says Ms Connor.
“For many people with disability, getting COVID could have dire consequences, but not getting care and support could also have dire consequences. And many members of our community, including NDIS participants, are significantly under-vaccinated or not vaccinated at all.
“The decision to ‘let it rip’ without any of the requisite planning in place has left many people with disability with the impossible choice of putting their lives and health at risk because they can’t get a support worker or putting their lives and health at risk by getting a support worker who may have COVID.”
The Australian Services Union (ASU), which advocates for disability support workers, has written to the Commonwealth and NSW governments to request paid isolation leave, priority booster vaccinations and adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
A survey of 700 of the Union’s members in NSW and the ACT found that one in three people working for National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) providers had been required to isolate during the pandemic as a close contact of a case.
Over the last three months, one in ten NDIS workers surveyed had actually contracted COVID-19.
Acting Secretary of the NSW/ACT Services Branch of the ASU, Angus McFarland, says support workers are under extreme pressure and putting their own health and wellbeing at risk to continue to service people that need them.
Just over one in ten (13 percent) of the surveyed support workers for the NDIS reported they had provided support to a person they knew was COVID positive in the past month.
Of those workers who were in contact with a known case, 30 percent did not have any PPE other than a regular face mask and less than half were provided with RATs.
Mr McFarland says, “As a result, they are getting infected with the virus or becoming close contacts and having to take time off work without pay.
“The NSW and Commonwealth Governments’ welfare payments are clearly not fit for purpose and a universal isolating leave scheme is required urgently.
“P2/N95 masks and eye protection should also be made available to staff immediately with NSW Health’s own Clinical Excellence Commission stating the level of protection they provide makes the difference between who is considered a close contact and who is not.
“Rapid Antigen Tests also need to be made available for free to all essential workers to support them to provide services safely and to protect their family and household.”
Only 31 percent of ASU members have received a booster shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, as at 13 January, and Mr McFarland says priority access to boosters should also be established.
“Essential disability services workers and those who rely on them should not have to suffer because the Commonwealth and NSW Governments failed to plan before unleashing Omicron on the community,” he says.
In addition to the priority of vaccinations and supply of free RATs and PPE, Ms Connor says there should be priority access to and processing of PCR tests for people with disability and support workers so that support is not dependent on either waiting for test results.
“Disability advocates have been warning about these kind of continuity of care issues ever since ‘let it rip’ seemingly became the official response to the pandemic. It is imperative that governments start listening to us and urgently fix these issues,” she says.
“Australia has obligations under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability, to which it is a signatory. Governments must work together with our sector to ensure we have equitable access to preventative measures and a surge workforce [to] make people with disability safe.”