Carers at COVID-ravaged Epping Gardens claim they were pressured to delay testing

One of the aged care homes hit hardest by coronavirus slashed staffing on the cusp of Victoria’s second COVID-19 wave and has been accused of instructing workers to not only delay getting tested for the virus but to keep working while awaiting test results.

The Age has obtained emails outlining “instructions by management” at Epping Gardens to cut carers' shifts in the weeks before coronavirus swept through the home, leaving 37 people dead and infecting almost all of the 120 residents.

Workers at Epping Gardens aged care centre in July.Credit:Eddie Jim

Former Epping Gardens carers told The Age the workforce cuts were so drastic that at one point just six carers were rostered on to attend to 80 vulnerable residents, resulting in many being fed around an open table.

"These poor people," said a former employee. “Many are now dead”.

Grieving families and former staff are taking civil action against the company, alleging it failed its duty of care.

Epping Gardens is owned by multimillionaire aged-care moguls Tony Antonopoulos and Peter Arvanitis, who operate Heritage Care Pty Ltd – the parent company for 10 for-profit homes in Sydney and Melbourne.

A patient transport vehicle leaves Epping Gardens in July.Credit:Eddie Jim

Emails from Heritage Care managers to Epping Gardens staff show the company reduced staff numbers weeks before the second wave of coronavirus.

One email sent to staff on May 8 delivers a blunt warning. "Rosters attached will reflect some changes, particularly to shift times," the email said. "'NO WORK' means do not come to work as this shift has been suspended until further notice. Unfortunately, some of you may not be rostered on."

On May 29, another email confirmed there would be cuts. “Epping Gardens has had significant challenges due to COVID-19,” the email from Heritage Care’s human resources manager said. “As a result we have had no other option but to review the roster based on occupancy and resident acuity.”

The Age on Monday spoke with four former carers at Epping Gardens, who all said managers and senior nurses instructed select staff in July to avoid testing if they wanted to continue working.

One carer who was in regular contact with infected staff and residents said she was tested for coronavirus at Epping Gardens on July 21, the first day the Department of Health and Human Services said publicly there were two coronavirus cases in the home.

She said that after her test she was asked by Heritage Care’s general manager to continue working while she awaited the results. She initially returned a negative result on July 23, but tested positive on July 30 after a second test.

The employee, who asked not to be named for fear of jeopardising future work prospects, said she suffered ongoing health effects associated with the virus, but also stress and anxiety from Epping Gardens' handling of the crisis.

She said most of the carers employed at Epping Gardens were Indian, Nepalese or Filipino, and most were on temporary work permits.

"Most of us don't really know our rights and couldn't afford to lose our jobs," she said.

Epping Gardens chief executive Greg Reeve declined to answer questions on Wednesday. He said while he was grateful to have had questions put to him about what had transpired at the home, “I can make no comment as the issues are the subject of a Supreme Court hearing”.

The allegations made against the home's management will be included in a Supreme Court civil suit launched by Carbone Lawyers. The allegations are not made against Mr Reeve or against Mr Antonopoulos and Mr Arvanitis.

The law firm is representing dozens of grieving families, along with traumatised staff who contracted the virus at Epping Gardens.

Carbone Lawyers managing partner Tony Carbone said: "These breaches are so grave that no responsible management team could have allowed them to happen, particularly considering the vulnerability of the residents".

He said cutting hours for carers during a pandemic was “gross mismanagement and negligence" and should be investigated.

Many of the employees at Epping Gardens worked in close proximity to infected residents but were also rostered to work across the home’s wards on the same day – which may have hastened transmission of coronavirus.

By Tuesday this week, 87 staff at Epping Gardens had contracted coronavirus.

The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation represented 11 nurses working at the centre in staff meetings with Heritage Care management in June, when hundreds of hours were cut from the roster for nurses and care assistants.

The union's state secretary, Lisa Fitzpatrick, said the cutbacks directly increased the risk of coronavirus spreading through the home.

“Part of the problem is fatigue and [nurses] being rushed, especially where personal protective equipment is concerned. If you have more staff to share that load, we certainly wouldn’t have had the same number of residents infected,” she said.

Ms Fitzpatrick said the hundreds of deaths in Victorian homes were “not the result of hotel quarantine – they’re the result of understaffing and a lack of qualified staff”.

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