Mandatory COVID-19 vaccination for aged care workers sparks debate

There has been divisive opinions in the aged care sector after the COVID-19 vaccine was made mandatory for residential aged care workers. Photo: File image.

There has been divisive opinions in the aged care sector after the COVID-19 vaccine was made mandatory for residential aged care workers. Photo: File image.

To get the COVID-19 jab or not? For most of us that is a choice we get to make but for residential aged care workers this is no longer an option.

On June 28, health authorities set a mandate that residential staff in the aged care sector must get their first COVID-19 vaccine by mid-September.

This decision has drawn strong objections from many staff who are concerned about potential health risks while others believe it is in their duty of care to receive the vaccine.

'No jab, no job'

For Lynn, who has worked in aged care in the South West for 15 years, said getting the jab was an easy decision after seeing the most recent outbreak in Australia.

"I went to Queensland to visit my daughter and the last day before I came back they had a lockdown so I had to self isolate for two weeks. That made me want to get the jab as quickly as I could," she said.

"Especially if you work in the aged care industry you should think about looking after the vulnerable elderly. You have a duty of care to make sure you keep them safe.

"They're vulnerable and elderly so if they catch COVID-19 they can possibly die and I don't want that to happen. I would feel awful if something happened to one of my clients because of me."

Lynn supports the move to require aged care workers to be vaccinated and said the mandate should've started months ago.

"It should be mandatory and if you don't agree with it you shouldn't be in that industry," she said.

"We have to look after these people who are in our care and their families rely on us to take good care of them.

"They should've brought the mandate in ages ago because there has been a lot of infections through staff carrying it into the aged care facilities.

"It's mandatory for us to have the flu jab so why is this any different. There's risks no matter what vaccine you get. The good outweighs the bad."

The mandatory vaccination program simply has to work or we will face a new and deeper crisis in aged care.

United Workers Union director Carolyn Smith

However, Lynn expects staff departures when the mandate comes into play.

"I've seen aged care workers online saying 'If we have to get the jab we're going to walk out'," Lynn said.

"My belief is no jab, no job."

Vaccine hesitancy among staff

The aged care sector remains divided as another worker from the South West, who asked to remain anonymous, showed hesitancy towards getting the vaccine due to an existing health condition.

"I had an adverse reaction to an immunisation I received almost ten years ago before I travelled overseas. It just wore me down physically, emotionally and mentally to the point where my liver is now covered in scar tissue," the worker said.

"If my immune system is already buggered, why would I inject some foreign stuff into my body which could give me the same reaction? My liver is already shotty, I don't want to mess with it at all."

The worker reiterated they did not strictly oppose the vaccination, but due to the "lack of research" around the potential long term effects, she said workers in the aged care sector should have the right to choose whether they receive the jab or not.

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She also said the roll out of the 'let's stay at home if you're unwell' campaign had already resulted in carers calling in sick as to not risk a clients health, which would continue whether workers got vaccinated or not.

"Even if we get a sniffle, we don't go to an oldies home because they can die of the flu and get pneumonia at the drop of a hat. They're already in a vulnerable position so why would a carer go there if they're sick?

"That's the worst thing about this COVID-19 vaccine; if you say you're not getting it, you instantly become a conspiracy theorist and anti-vax. But everybody is unique and everybody has choices. Would you like to be forced to do something?"

It's the jab that's causing us not to have a job.

Aged care worker

The worker also said there was a "hole in the system" in that aged care clients and their close family members might not choose to receive the vaccine or even the flu shot, but their carers were still expected to receive it.

"I'm not saying I'll never have it, I'm just asking what the side effects are. It's a bit unfair that the government has made health care workers the first in line for the vaccine because there isn't enough staff at aged care homes anyway. So why mess with them?

"It's the jab that's causing us not to have a job and if the government makes this official, aged care companies won't have a choice and they'll lose a lot of staff. And that affects the oldies."

Best way to protect most vulnerable, health department says

With aged care staff with immune system disorders hesitant to get the vaccine, a Federal Department of Health spokesperson assured the Mail that COVID-19 vaccines were safe for people with such disorders including immunodeficiency and autoimmune conditions.

"Vaccination against COVID-19 remains the best way to prevent severe illness and death from COVID-19," the spokesperson said.

"Staff working in residential aged care facilities care for some of the most vulnerable members of our society. Through residential aged care staff receiving the COVID-19 vaccination, this will further protect the residents in their care.

"This is similar to orders implemented for aged care facilities that mandate workers and visitors to have proof of their flu vaccine before entering the premises."

Making vaccines more accessible

The United Workers Union agrees with the move to make vaccinations mandatory for aged care workers but director Carolyn Smith said funding was needed to increase accessibility to vaccinations.

"We welcome funding to address issues that have made it hard for aged care workers to be vaccinated - such as leave to be vaccinated and leave if people are unwell afterwards," she said.

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"We also want to see an effective program that addresses aged care workers' issues in receiving the vaccine, including an education program and an adequate supply of easily available vaccine.

"The mandatory vaccination program simply has to work or we will face a new and deeper crisis in aged care. If workers find themselves banned wholesale because of failures in the mandatory vaccination program, that will lead to even further shortages in aged care staffing and even poorer outcomes for older Australians."