Private beds not considered for St Basils

The option of evacuating St Basil's residents to private hospitals was never seriously considered.
The option of evacuating St Basil's residents to private hospitals was never seriously considered.

Evacuating residents of a Melbourne aged care home hit by COVID-19 to private hospitals was never seriously considered despite hundreds of beds being available, an inquest has heard.

Outbreak managers instead replaced the entire staff at St Basil's Home for the Aged with an emergency workforce on July 22 last year, during Melbourne's second wave of the virus.

Within hours of the handover, inexperienced nursing staff were struggling to care for the mostly Greek-speaking residents, who had already missed out on meals and medicine.

The inquest into the deaths of 45 St Basil's residents from COVID, and another five residents who likely died of neglect, has been told the outbreak management team never seriously explored an alternative option of evacuating residents to private hospital care.

This was despite warnings from senior doctors the afternoon before the handover that replacing regular staff was a "shocking idea", and the plan would turn out to be "a disaster".

The inquest heard that by the evening of July 22, Victorian health authorities had found 115 private hospital beds that could be used for COVID positive patients and a further 499 that could be deployed for COVID negative residents, and these could be staffed within 24 hours.

On Friday, the pleas from senior doctors were put to Victorian health department executive Jackie Kearney.

She insisted that the Commonwealth was responsible for staffing the home's surge workforce, and she could not recall discussing whether any other options might need to be considered.

By July 23, Ms Kearney had become personally involved in the last-minute scramble to find sufficient staff, emailing a call-out to find three registered nurses to fill shifts for that night.

An email sent that day by Commonwealth health department COVID liaison officer Kim Wilcox showed federal authorities were open to using private hospital beds, but it was unclear to him whether they were required.

"Good to go as a principle - but not necessarily for St Basil's ... unless we still think it is needed," Mr Wilcox wrote.

Within days of the handover, 40 of the 117 St Basil's residents were hospitalised anyway, when Commonwealth authorities directed they should be transferred because the burden on emergency nursing staff was too great.

The remainder of the residents were transferred by August 1.

Also on Friday, the inquest heard from three nurses who agreed to be part of the surge workforce.

Rabina Khadka gave evidence that she and other nurses refused to work at the facility after the first two days, because the elderly residents were not being looked after properly.

"We don't want to go in because there is not enough staff, we felt helpless, we wanted to attend the residents and give proper care," she testified.

When her manager told her there was no one else to do the job, she agreed to return to St Basil's, but ended up contracting COVID herself.

Her colleague Biting Tang, who worked in the dementia ward where most residents had tested positive, described piles of dirty PPE left on the floor on the day of the handover, and a lack of information about how each resident should take their medication.

Deepika Yonzan said it was difficult to understand some of the residents, and she became upset when she was unable to give their families meaningful information about their condition.

"They were dehydrated, they looked very weak, we tried to help them but they were not willing to eat and not drinking," she said.

The hearing continues on Monday before Victorian State Coroner John Cain.

Australian Associated Press