Just one in 10 of Warrigal's 1500 aged care workers have received a COVID-19 vaccine, despite working with the most vulnerable members of our community.
Another major Illawarra aged care provider, IRT, has had just over 15 per cent of their 1800 staff vaccinated.
Of the many aged care providers the Mercury contacted this week, the highest rate of vaccination among workers was found in a smaller, single facility - Illawarra Diggers Aged and Community Care - where 25 per cent of the 116 staff had been vaccinated.
There it seemed, it was a matter of luck - with those staff given the 'spare' vaccines when the Federal Government's 'flying' vaccination team came to immunise the facility's residents.
It's a similar story across the state, and the country, with a low rate of vaccination among aged care workers despite them being classified as high priority in Phase 1a of the national vaccine rollout.
Workers - and providers - are frustrated over the Federal government's slow vaccine rollout for staff in the sector and are demanding answers.
Mark Sewell - CEO of Warrigal which operates 11 residential care homes across the Illawarra, Southern Highlands and the ACT - said only eight to 10 per cent of his staff had been vaccinated.
"The small number of staff that had got the vaccine had been lucky to receive leftover vaccines. All our other 1500 staff have had two failed plans up till now," he said.
"They were firstly advised by the federal government they would be vaccinated with the residents by visiting vaccination teams but the teams haven't been given enough vaccines to do the staff.
"The advice was then given a month ago for staff to go to GP clinics as they spring up but that plan was adjusted when people under 50 were not recommended to get the AstraZeneca vaccine from a GP. Seventy-five per cent of our staff are under 50.
"Last week we have received permission to join the state government's hospital rollout; we are currently planning how this will be managed. We hope that after May 3, we will have staff on a rotational basis being booked into the Wollongong and Shoalhaven hospitals."
A high level of vaccinated staff will provide a herd immunity in our homes and the more of our staff get vaccinated the better.Mark Sewell, Warrigal CEO
The changing protocols - and health advice - have been confusing for both providers and staff, an Illawarra Diggers spokesman said.
"The rollout for the residents, once the initial company was replaced, was smooth and efficient," he said. "The rollout for our frontline workers has been anything but this. It has been inefficient, confusing, conflicting and frustrating."
The spokesman said the staff who had been vaccinated just happened to be working the day vaccines were administered to residents. Those who missed out were advised to go to their GPs for an AstraZeneca shot if over 50; and to a hub "wherever and whenever that is" for the under-50s.
On Wednesday, there was some positive news with the state government outlining its plan to assist the federal vaccine rollout.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced that a mass COVID-19 vaccination hub would open in Sydney Olympic Park on May 10.
Frontline health workers and quarantine workers would be first in line, Ms Berejiklian said, while the state would also help vaccinate aged care workers and disability workers.
Meantime this week NSW Health has reached out to local aged care providers, telling them that preparations had begun for COVID vaccinations for aged care workers in the Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District.
Providers have been asked to get consenting staff to register their interest, and to identify their high priority staff with bookings to commence at hospital vaccine hubs soon.
However with winter fast approaching, and the risk of COVID infections rising, many remain concerned.
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A nurse immuniser who works for one of the providers enlisted by the federal government to deliver the vaccine rollout spoke to the Mercury on the condition of anonymity. She said she experienced firsthand the frustrations of aged care staff when the vaccination team turned up at their facilities, with barely any vaccines to spare for workers.
"Staff want to be vaccinated - they do not want to bring COVID into these homes and put their residents at risk, and they don't want to take it home to their families either," she said.
"However our team is only given so many doses, with residents the first priority and any leftover doses to be given to staff. There's never enough to go around."
The nurse said the rapid changes in health advice and protocols was "bewildering" and she could understand the frustrations at aged care facilities.
"Staff are getting very anxious, especially as we head into the winter months," she said.
"Because facilities are given short notice of our visit, we've turned up at some and been unable to use any spare doses to vaccinate staff as they've had flu jabs in the past week.
"We've had to throw out doses."
Meantime an Illawarra aged care resident said he'd hoped the government would have prioritised not only residents, but staff, especially in light of the damning Aged Care Royal Commission report.
"They have put at risk the aged; visitations; being locked down again and all the loneliness that goes with it; by not vaccinating the second most important people in the aged care vaccination program - the very people who look after the residents," he said.
A Wollongong aged care nurse said many of her colleagues had been told to sort out their own vaccinations.
"It's been difficult from the outset, waiting for information to come through about how the rollout would occur for our residents, then also for us as their care providers.
"Hopefully now there's more collaboration between the federal and state governments, things will improve quickly and get on track."
Mr Sewell hopes that 70 to 80 per cent of Warrigal staff will be vaccinated in the next couple of months.
"They are on the frontline and work around our older people, so it's just as important that they are protected," he said.
"A high level of vaccinated staff will provide a herd immunity in our homes and the more of our staff get vaccinated the better as we begin operating during winter and then towards a new 'COVID normal' in spring."
Federal health department response
A Federal Health Department spokesman said the government had contracted four in-reach vaccine workforce providers to administer COVID-19 vaccines to residents in NSW residential aged care facilities - Aspen Medical, Healthcare Australia, Sonic Healthcare and International SOS. In addition, the Australian Defence Force had delivered vaccines to these facilities.
As at April 26, over 64,552 COVID-19 vaccine doses had been administered in 511 of the state's residential aged care and disability accommodation facilities. Of these, 268 facilities have received second doses clinics.
"Aged care workers are a priority and it is why they are included in Phase 1a. Residents are receiving the vaccine first because they are most vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19," the spokesman said.
"Some workers have already been vaccinated where there has been additional vaccine doses available after residents have been vaccinated."
Due to the updated health advice around the AstraZeneca vaccine earlier this month, the government revised the COVID-19 vaccine pathways for workers in residential aged care at a National Cabinet meeting on April 22.
"The revised rollout aims to make it as easy as possible for workers to get vaccinated quickly and safely," the spokesman said.
Residential aged care workers 50 years and over can access an AstraZeneca vaccine at a GP clinic, GP respiratory clinic or Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Service, GP in-reach vaccination clinics at their facility or state vaccine clinic.
Those under 50can access a Pfizer vaccine at a state vaccination clinic or Commonwealth Pfizer vaccination clinics dedicated to residential aged care and disability workers only (first clinics will open in Sydney from May 3).
The Department of Health has also published updated advice making it easier for those residential aged care facilities wishing to vaccinate their workers on-site with the Pfizer (for under 50s) and AstraZeneca (for 50 and overs) vaccines available.
"COVID-19 is much more likely to be severe in older people and people with certain medical problems than in young healthy people. Experience from the second wave, particularly in Victoria, is that one third of people aged over 80 who contract COVID-19 will not survive," the spokesman said.
"For this reason, our focus is on protecting people who are most vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19 and those who care for them - including our aged care workers."