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More than 5,000 Australian aged care residents have died with Covid since the start of the pandemic, with the number of reported deaths increasing sharply since the beginning of the year.

Department of Health data confirms the number of Covid deaths in aged care facilities jumped from a total of 4,448 on 22 December to 5,045 on 25 January.

This increase of 597 deaths in just over a month was much higher than the 246 deaths recorded between 22 December and 24 November.

The increase reflects a spike in community transmission among the general population at the time, but also reveals how aged care facilities have struggled to protect vulnerable residents, despite their best efforts.

The latest update at the end of January recorded 291 active outbreaks in as many aged care facilities. About 1,220 active cases were recorded among residents and 432 among staff.

A Department of Health and Age Well spokesperson said every death in aged care was a tragedy and acknowledged that deaths increased in January due to a spike in cases.

In a statement, CEO of peak body the Aged & Community Care Providers Association Tom Symondson said the removal of mandates in all jurisdictions in late 2022 has meant the onus is on providers to enforce rules like mask wearing and RATs before a visit to an aged care home.

“The community might be living with Covid, but the pandemic remains very much a reality in aged care.

“Workers and visitors to aged care homes must remain vigilant and take every precaution to protect residents, including keeping staff who tested positive safely away from the people they care for or support.”

While aged care providers appear to be well-equipped and have protocols in place to manage the latest wave of Covid, Mr Symondson said, “we must continue to do everything we can to keep our residents and clients safe.”

The latest snapshot also reveals staff shortages at dozens of facilities. In the week leading up to 25 January, a surge workforce filled 817 shifts at 46 residential aged care homes. “These shifts include roles for GPs, nurses, care workers, allied health workers [and] executive and ancillary staff,” the update said.

The Australian Medical Association’s president, Prof Steve Robson, said the deaths were “tragic but not surprising given the state of a largely neglected aged care sector”.

“We have known that elderly people are more vulnerable since the early days of the pandemic and have enacted targeted strategies, some from the start … but we obviously haven’t done enough to protect them,” Robson said.

“We have wound back almost all public health measures and this puts vulnerable people in aged care at greater risk.”

As Australia prepares to enter its fourth year of tackling COVID-19, the Federal Government has announced an update to the strategy, with adults eligible to receive a fifth vaccination later this month. 

The move follows the latest advice from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI)

‘From February 20, all adults who haven’t had a booster or an infection in the past six months can go out and get a booster shot, to give them additional protection against severe illness from COVID,’ Federal Health and Age Well Minister Mark Butler said.