Residents at a Melbourne aged care home were subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment during a Covid-19 outbreak when 50 of them died, an inquest has been told.
The inquiry into the deaths at St Basil’s Home for the Aged in Fawkner during the state’s second outbreak in 2020 opened on Monday with the names of each of those who died read out in court.
Of the 117 residents living at the home, 50 died in July and August 2020.
In an opening statement counsel assisting Peter Rozen QC said staff at the home were deemed ‘close contacts’ and furloughed on July 22, with the Commonwealth taking over the home despite multiple warnings that regular staff should not be replaced.
Residents at a Melbourne aged care home were subjected to degrading treatment, an inquest has heard (stock image)
He said one doctor involved in the response, Dr Rabin Sinnappu, warned that furloughing St Basil’s staff would result in disaster, while another doctor described it as a ‘shocking’ idea.
Mr Rozen said a lack of care for residents had become apparent by the end of the first day of the takeover, after the federal health department could not find enough new staff.
‘There were far too few of these workers at St Basil’s for them to have provided care at the level the residents deserved and the law required,’ he said.
The court heard that by July 23, pathology staff visiting to test residents found the conditions ‘shocking to say the least’.
The medical director of Melbourne Pathology, Dr Ellen Maxwell, alerted the Victorian health department in an email that Covid-positive residents were mixing freely with others, bins were overflowing, PPE had not been cleared and medication was on the floor.
She said one staff member was in tears, appalled that a patient who had died was wheeled out of the home with no attempt to clear the corridor of people.
The first witness at the inquest was Christine Golding whose mother Efraxia, 84, caught the virus at the home.
She testified that St Basil’s had provided good, culturally appropriate care for her mother, but during the outbreak her mother’s treatment was inhumane and degrading.
Although Efraxia could not feed herself, several trays of food were found left in her room, and at one point she was no longer able to talk due to dehydration and lack of food, Ms Golding said.
She recalled the facility manager warning that if staff were furloughed, people would die from neglect rather than Covid.
‘That sent a shiver up my spine,’ she told the hearing.
During the outbreak a group of residents’ families met outside the home, and when staff would not tell them who was in charge, they began banging on the windows until the police were called, she said.
The entrance of St Basil’s Home for the Aged in Fawkner, Melbourne, Australia. An inquiry into the deaths at St Basil’s during the state’s second Covid outbreak in 2020 opened on Monday
‘It was a state of chaos and desperation… the anger was driven by fear,’ she said.
‘Australians deserve to know why our aged care Covid-19 preparedness was so poor, why it spectacularly failed my mother and contributed to her premature death.’
Mr Rozen said the inquest would not lay blame on the workers brought in to care for St Basil’s residents, saying the evidence would show a number of them went ‘above and beyond’, but the circumstances were impossible.
He also explained that an expert report would show the delay between the notification of the first Covid case at the home on July 9, and test results becoming available on July 17, was a root cause of the failure to contain the outbreak, as was a lack of co-ordination between state and federal health departments.
Forty-five residents died from coronavirus, but the inquest is also covering five other deaths at the home during the same period.
Victorian State Coroner John Cain will spend the next five weeks hearing from 65 witnesses about how the virus got into the home and how it spread among residents.