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What does life after 80 mean for the health sector?

Last month, the WA Government confirmed it will have one of the broadest vaccine mandates in the country, covering an estimated million workers and building on earlier requirements for all health, hotel quarantine, aged care and port workers to be vaccinated.

The new measures identify two groups of employees and industries that will need to be vaccinated to ensure critical services can be delivered.

The first group — high risk occupations — includes healthcare workers, emergency services personnel, mine site workers and pharmacists, dentists and meat workers, among others, who now have a range of deadlines for double vaccination, all by January 1 next year.

The second group — critical occupations — with a double-vax deadline of January 31, 2022, is far broader: bakers, bar staff and butchers, teachers and school staff, vets and bus drivers, tourist operators and funeral directors.

A third group has also been identified that will also be required to be vaccinated to attend work in the event of a lockdown or similar restrictions. This includes newsagents, pet stores, journalists, roadside assistance, agricultural workers and farmers, wholesalers and politicians.

Together, an estimated 75% of WA workers are captured in the move, which meets the demands of a host of industries and employers, including the mining sector, who have been looking for government support in order to adopt similar measures.

What does life after 80 mean for the health sector?

Frontline workers, ruddy cheeked, hot and exhausted from long shifts in PPE have become the human face of the COVID pandemic, and sustaining this sector will be a key challenge not only for WA but for all states as lockdowns lift.

But with borders closed, and a decade needed to train workers to adequately perform in ICUs, there’s no health workforce cavalry that can be called on to relieve exhausted employees.

The sector is also in the trenches for the culture war, as was seen in Melbourne when anti-mandatory vaccination protestors shut vaccine clinics, prompting recommendations that nurses travel in groups and avoid being seen outside their workplace in uniform.

GPs have reported increased anger among patients, and abuse from people demanding letters that give them an exemption from vaccinations, masks or other measures.

So far Australia has avoided the worst of these kinds of responses — the furious crowd that spent New Year screaming ‘COVID is not real’ outside a London hospital or the picket lines stalling patients heading to treatment centres in Canada.

Yet the threat of violence, abuse, and targeted attacks, even on health agencies not directly caring for patients, has prompted doctors and others to call for calm and reason to prevail.

While the war of words rages, health providers behind the scenes continue to work in difficult conditions, and in WA that has meant preparing for a threat that is yet to arrive.

In the process, health care staff have had more than a year of new procedures, tighter hygiene standards, agitated patients and more intense cleaning and safety measures that need to be implemented. It’s hard work, and it’s not surprising if staff feel overwhelmed.

For health leaders the need to address and respond to these concerns is clear, if Australia is to avoid the mass resignations seen in some other jurisdictions of health workers who are exhausted and disheartened.

The physical threat to health workers from the virus is substantial; the mental health toll of long hours, exposure to death and risk to personal safety even more so.

The WA Government’s new rules for compulsory vaccination for health workers will be far-reaching and could prompt some staff to decide to leave rather than comply, although there’s evidence vaccine hesitancy has fallen in recent months and could fall further now older staff members can opt to be vaccinated by the Pfizer vaccine.

Despite this, more than 250 health workers failed to reach even an extended deadline of October 1 to have had their first jab, putting pressure on country hospital rosters.

The WA rules initially apply to all Tier 1 facilities, whether private or public, including intensive care units in a hospital, vaccination clinics, COVID testing facilities or respiratory wards. They will build to cover all other hospitals and nursing posts, all facilities operated by the Department of Health or Health Service provided, and vehicles (read ambulances) from which public health services are delivered.

The Federal Government’s map of aged care workers suggests at least 90% in most of WA have had at least one jab, which is a positive sign for other parts of the sector.

What are the solutions?

Health workers need to know that political and organisational leaders are on their sides — and
that can only be done with consistent, clear communication that keeps them informed and across any changes.

It also means being on the front foot for the treacherous issues ahead, such as how a sudden influx of COVID cases might disrupt the regular activity within hospitals already under strain.

For health care providers outside the scope of the public health directive, addressing vaccine hesitancy carefully, and working with staff to encourage but not push vaccinations, could be the fastest
path forward.

Western Australian Chief Health Officer Dr Andrew Robertson recommends the State Government mandates COVID-19 vaccinations for an estimated 10,000 staff in private provider facilities, and this mandate could continue to grow.

In the meantime, keeping the lines of communication open to staff on the frontline, prioritising safe working behaviour, and making it as easy as possible for personnel to get vaccinated may be the best approach.

Associate Director, Jean Perkins said that studies find concerns about vaccine safety, efficacy and side effects are the top three reasons for hesitancy among health care workers, so providing credible and reassuring information is key to addressing these concerns.

“However frustrating their stance may be, unvaccinated staff members must be able to discuss their concerns without judgment, with health providers ready to connect them with trusted, evidence-based resources,” Jean said.

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Life After 80 is a white paper with a difference. It is our chance to look at life after the 80% double-vaccinated threshold is reached, the minimum level before WA is likely to lower its hard borders. Download the white paper here.