Disability homes lack safety plans as union warns of mental health toll

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Hundreds of Victorian disability homes are still without COVID safety plans, fuelling concerns outbreaks in the sector could quickly escalate into soaring numbers of coronavirus cases, in a repeat of the aged care crisis.

A survey conducted by the Health and Community Services Union of more than 900 Victorian disability workers found more than one in five of the state's estimated 1400 disability homes are yet to enact COVID-safe plans.

Many disability homes still do not have a COVID-safe plan, the union survey found.Credit:Randy Faris/Fuse

Staff at more than 20 Victorian homes reported in a recent audit that they still did not have access to personal protective equipment such as masks. Ninety-five per cent of disability workers also voiced distress and anxiety about their working conditions.

The union has also sounded the alarm on a mental health epidemic among disability workers, after three suicides among Victorian disability workers in the past six months. All were women, including two aged in their 20s.

"It's frightening," the union's state secretary Paul Healey said. "This has never occurred in such a short space of time before and we are really concerned about the mental health stresses and the wellbeing of workers due to the pandemic."

One-third of disability homes were still grappling with shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE) such as highly protective N95 face masks and goggles, the survey found, while about 60 per cent of homes did not have a clinical waste bin and almost 40 per cent were without a sanitary bin. About 40 per cent of workers said they had still not been shown how to properly fit medical masks.

"Staff at about 22 homes across the state said they did not have any PPE at all when we did the safety audit and this was late into the pandemic," Mr Healey said. "It is disgraceful."

Stuart Robert, Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, said there were no active cases of COVID-19 among NDIS participants or workers in Australia.

"It is a testament to the work the disability sector, with assistance from both the Australian government and the Victorian government, that has seen low infection rates of COVID-19 – in general and when compared to the broader community – in both NDIS participants and workers, particularly during the second wave of the pandemic in Victoria," he said.

He said the government had responded early to address the mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, announcing more than $500 million for mental health and suicide prevention since January.

There have been 303 infections among NDIS participants and staff in Victoria since the beginning of the pandemic.

Victorian Advocacy League for Individuals with Disability chief executive Kevin Stone said there were no excuses for homes to lack COVID-19 safety plans, and he called on the government and NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commissioner to bear down on providers "with everything they’ve got".

"It's just absolutely disappointing," he said. "It is fundamental that every house would have a COVID-safe plan. Every single organisation should be asking themselves the question: are we 100 per cent compliant? And if they’re not, then the bucks stops with the service providers here."

Mr Stone said families would be horrified that their loved ones were being put at risk.

One eastern suburbs disability worker said he had increasing concerns about the risk of outbreaks as residents began to participate in day programs again.

"That's when the real problems will start," said Daniel, who wanted only his first name used because he is still employed by a disability service provider.

"At the moment they are not mixing with a whole bunch of people who don't understand social distancing and who don't wear masks. To me, those events are going to be the super-spreaders and if the virus gets established in disability houses, with the high level of casual workforce, it will just burn through them and residents will die."

He said during the peak of the second wave in Victoria, casual disability workers were coming into disability accommodation from suburbs deemed hotspots for infections, and it was "just luck" the sector was spared the same fate as aged care.

Union president Deb Gunn, a Melbourne disability support worker of more than 30 years, said while infections continued to drop in Victoria, coronavirus "was not going away any time soon".

"My real concern is that we are going to at some point have another wave of outbreaks and that [the] lack of safety plans and lack of appropriate PPE is going to leave everyone vulnerable to catching COVID," she said.

Mr Healey said more than 600 disability homes where staff were surveyed were run by major providers including Life without Barriers, Aruma and Yorolla.

All Victorian disability support workers are required to wear a single-use surgical mask when at work.

"We have distributed over 650,000 masks and over 40,000 P2/95 respirators from our Victorian stockpile to [disability] service providers," a Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman said.

Life without Barriers declined to comment when contacted. Aruma and Yorolla were also both contacted for comment.

This month, the disability royal commission heard evidence from 36 witnesses, many of whom were people with severe disability, speaking of the extreme stress and anxiety caused by potential exposure to the virus through contact with different casual support staff coming in on a daily basis.

If you are troubled by this report or experiencing a personal crisis, you can call Lifeline on 131 114 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636, or visit lifeline.org.au or beyondblue.com.au

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