“There’s a looming emergency in this sector and we need to be proactive to prevent what’s happened in the aged care sector. We have an obligation to disability support workers, they’ve been the forgotten workforce in this pandemic. Unless we work with them we will have another aged care crisis,” she said.
Professor Kavanagh was the lead researcher in a survey of 357 Australian disability support workers in late May and June which found nearly one in four (23 per cent) had had no coronavirus infection training and of those who had, nearly half (48 per cent) said they wanted more.
“The workforce is scared and they just aren’t resourced to support people in [a COVID-19 infection] situation. They are not a prepared workforce.”
It found that as in aged care, disability support workers cannot physically distance while working. Each worker assisted an average six people each in the week before the survey – but one had work contact with 50.
The national research by the University of Melbourne Disability and Health unit and the UNSW, Canberra, found one third worked in two or more settings and 14 per cent worked in three or more settings. More than four out of five workers (83 per cent) were women.
Two in five (38 per cent) purchased their own masks, and of those who took time off due to illness, less than half were paid. A 2018 report by National Disability Services found Australia had more than 35,000 front line disability workers.
Victorian support worker Kristy said since the day centre she works in closed due to the pandemic she has been working across multiple sites and “every day we get new advice on what to do and that is stressful”.
Workers are unprepared to look after people with disabilities with COVID-19 living in a group home. I feel terribly worried about that.
Professor Anne Kavanagh
“I am worried about protecting the people I work with as many have health problems and if they got COVID they would really be at risk of dying from it,” she said.
“I feel like the government has forgotten about people with disability and support workers. All the attention is on aged care but disability services have the same risks, even worse perhaps because so many of the people have other health problems.”
Professor Kavanagh said it was concerning that so many workers who had had some infection control training “still didn’t feel confident” they knew enough about it and wanted more. “Once you get to using full PPE, which is more than just masks and gloves, it’s a very complicated and difficult thing to do.
“It takes a lot of training; support workers are unprepared to look after people with disabilities with COVID-19 living in a group home. I feel terribly worried about that.”
She said far greater oversight of services and their responses to the pandemic by public health authorities was needed, plus more outbreak preparation and support by medical workers.
“They really need well-trained nursing staff to work alongside workers in these situations. The disability support workforce is really precariously employed and there are all the same risks associated with aged care workers.”
The Disability Support Workers: The Forgotten Workforce in COVID-19 report, which contains 11 recommendations to help disability support workers prevent, prepare for and respond to coronavirus infection in group homes, will be released today.
Among the recommendations are:
- Governments update guidelines regarding PPE use among disability support workers, particularly in areas of high community transmission.
- Governments reach out to workers to provide required training and clear information about whether, when, and how PPE is used, including on-site training with specialised infection control nurses.
- Workers in high community transmission areas should have access to appropriate PPE (minimum of masks) without cost to them.
- Disability support workers are made a priority group for testing along with healthcare and aged care workers.
- Paid pandemic leave is available to all disability support workers who do not have access to paid sick leave and need to self-isolate or quarantine.
- Governments and providers ensure workers minimise the number of people they support and numbers of settings they work in to reduce transmission risk.
- Skilled healthcare workers be put on standby for rapid deployment to work with or replace support service workers for clients infected with COVID-19 as has been done in aged care.
- Options are considered to temporarily rehouse residents in group homes where infections have occurred, to separated infected and non-infected residents.
Wendy Tuohy is a Sunday Age senior writer.