With COVID-19 cases in New South Wales continuing to increase, there are growing concerns for vulnerable residents in a Sydney disability group home at the centre of an expanding COVID-19 cluster.
The New South Wales Government on Thursday confirmed three residents and two staff members who worked in Sydney’s Unisson Disability home in Parklea were diagnosed with COVID-19.
More than 85 staff and clients linked to the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) funded service provider are self-isolating after a worker tested positive for the virus before unknowingly passing it on to three residents and another employee.
These positive cases are among the 2,226 locally acquired cases in NSW reported since 16 June 2021, when the first case in the Bondi cluster was reported.
The news comes as Australia deals with a Delta outbreak that has sent NSW, Victoria and South Australia into lockdown.
Executive Director of the New South Wales COVID-19 Public Health Response Branch, Dr Jeremy McAnulty, says there have been COVID-19 outbreaks in two aged care facilities and one disability home over the past week.
“The Public Health Unit has been investigating, making sure the other people are tested and isolated and cared for,” Dr McAnulty says.
A relative of one of the residents, who wished to remain anonymous, spoke to the ABC last week and was concerned about the situation.
"I'm very worried because he's quite physically frail [and] he's living with a severe intellectual disability," the relative says.
"The usual staff have been taken out of the home and NSW Health have taken over.
“There's people in full Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in the home and he's not sure why."
Unisson primarily offers accommodation support for people – especially those living with an intellectual or learning disability.
The service provider says the three residents who tested positive had all received their first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine in May and were exhibiting mild or no symptoms.
Both of the staff members had received their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.
The relative says there are people with very specific needs living at the infected group home.
"The residents of these facilities live in close quarters, have a high rotation of staff and generally have quite high needs requiring a lot of physical contact all day for things like toileting and showering," she says.
"Many are at significant risk of dying from COVID due to comorbidities."
The vaccination status of other people at Unisson’s six-bed segregated accommodation is unknown.
Advocates call for people with disability to have vaccine choice
The news that residents and workers at a disability group home in NSW have tested positive for COVID-19 comes as advocacy organisation People with Disability Australia (PWDA) calls for people with disability to have a choice over which vaccine they receive.
According to PWDA, people with disability and their treating practitioners should be able to assess their risk of getting COVID-19 and choose what vaccine to get.
The peak advocacy organisation’s plea comes after Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently announced risk profiles for getting COVID had shifted in recent times and States should be able to choose whether to vaccinate under-60s with AstraZeneca at mass vaccination clinics.
The Prime Minister’s comments came after he faced criticism for questioning Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) advice that Pfizer was the preferred vaccine for under-60s.
Since COVID-19 vaccines were introduced in Australia, PWDA has argued people with disability and their supporters should have a choice of vaccines, if they wanted one, and should have priority for vaccination.
PWDA president Samantha Connor says people with disability should be able to choose what vaccine they receive, and when and where they get vaccinated.
“The Delta variant of COVID-19 is a massive threat to the disability community and people with disability should be able to look at their risk of catching the virus and judge whether they want to wait for the vaccine recommended for them or go with one more readily available,” Ms Connor says.
“Some people with disability prefer Pfizer as an option, regardless of their age, but others younger than 60 want AstraZeneca now so they can be protected against dying from the virus.”
The advocate and disability rights campaigner says people with disability should be able to judge their risks in partnership with their trusted health professionals and both Pfizer and AstraZeneca should be made available to people in the 1a and 1b rollout.
Urgent discussions are currently being held between members of the disability community about State-based decision making not to provide AstraZeneca in community clinics, scarcity of Pfizer and determining the risk for clinically vulnerable disabled people, especially those in residential settings.