‘Save yourself’: How Con got COVID at St Basil’s and lived to tell the tale

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In the middle of the coronavirus outbreak at St Basil’s aged care home in Fawkner last year, Con Velissaris remembers one conversation vividly: a nurse told him it was now up to him to fend for himself.

Mr Velissaris was among 188 residents and staff who contracted coronavirus after a carer brought the disease into the home last July. He managed to survive. But 45 residents died with COVID-19, and another five also perished, probably of neglect, according to evidence heard in the Coroners Court.

Con Velissaris with daughter Mary. He lived at St Basil’s in 2020 when its outbreak started, and caught COVID-19. He survived.Credit:Paul Jeffers

On Thursday, a five-week coronial inquest into the deaths finished, having heard evidence from 54 witnesses.

Mr Velissaris, 80, was not among those witnesses, but he did give a statement to Victoria Police, who investigated the outbreak at the home for State Coroner John Cain.

In it, he describes a conversation he had with a new staff member at St Basil’s who had been sent in on July 22, as part of a “surge” workforce, replacing all of the home’s existing workers who were considered to be close contacts.

“[He] said that there was a big problem with St Basil’s and that [you] must save [yourself],” Mr Velissaris told police. He was told to “stay in his room until … transferred to a hospital to recover”.

Mr Velissaris had moved into the home in late 2019. He was treated at Glenferrie Private Hospital after being evacuated from St Basil’s, and credits health workers at Glenferrie with saving his life.

Last year, immediately after leaving St Basil’s, Mr Velissaris told Nine News he repeatedly heard staff screaming in the halls because so many residents were dying. “Last four or five days nurses were screaming running around, so many people were dying,” he said. “People die now, they die later, everyday one of them dies.”

Mr Velissaris now lives at another aged care home, in East Doncaster, where his daughter Mary says he is doing alright.

St Basil’s continues to operate as an aged care home, with the federal Department of Health on Thursday confirming there were now 49 residents living there.

Kon Kontis, former chairman of St Basil’s aged care home, leaves the Coroners Court this week. He declined to give evidence at the inquest into what happened at St Basil’s.Credit:Jason South

This week, relatives gave impact statements to Judge Cain and his counsel assisting during the inquest, Peter Rozen, QC.

Many families are furious that two central figures in the inquest, former St Basil’s chairman Kon Kontis and Vicky Kos, who was the director of nursing during the outbreak, both declined to give evidence on Wednesday.

They told the inquest they do not want to give evidence over their handling of the St Basil’s outbreak because of fears they may incriminate themselves in any future legal proceedings.

Mr Kontis on Wednesday appeared at the inquest but, asked by counsel assisting Judge Cain, Peter Rozen, QC, to give evidence, he said: “On legal advice, I object to giving evidence on the ground that it may tend to incriminate me in relation to an offence under Australian law.”

Vicky Kos, the former director of nursing at St Basil’s in Fawkner, leaves the Coroners Court after declining to give evidence at an inquest into 45 deaths at the aged care home.Credit:Jason South

Judge Cain has said he will rule next week on whether he will compel the pair to give evidence.

The conclusion of the coronial inquest on Thursday coincided with the Victorian Supreme Court ruling that a class action brought by families against St Basil’s could proceed.

The home, which is owned by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia, had applied to have the legal case thrown out. Justice John Dixon dismissed the attempt.

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