Statement from the Commissioner for Older People for Northern Ireland in response to the news of COVID outbreaks in 103 care homes in Northern Ireland.
“As Commissioner for Older People my priority will always be safeguarding and promoting the interests of older people. I am in regular contact with the Public Health Agency seeking updates on the situation in care homes and I am assured by the fact that very few residents are becoming seriously ill, with the majority of cases either asymptomatic or displaying mild symptoms. Over 90% of care home residents have received both vaccines, so we can see that the vaccination programme has been extremely effective in reducing serious illness in older people living in these settings.
“The term outbreak perhaps doesn’t give an accurate depiction of the situation and may conjure up unnecessary fear. For a care home to be declared in outbreak, it means two or more people have tested positive for COVID. Staff members are tested weekly and that routine testing is picking up staff infection which we know is not being passed on to residents in the majority of cases.
“I understand it is concerning to see rising outbreaks in care homes but it is not unexpected. The vaccination reduces infection but does not stop it entirely. Whilst I would urge those who can get vaccinated to do so, I remind people that 100% vaccination levels in staff will not stop outbreaks from happening. Visitors, care partners and residents leaving the home all provide opportunities for COVID to come into a care home.
“I have seen many comments over the past couple of days where unvaccinated care staff have been blamed for the outbreaks and pressure has been applied to bring in mandatory vaccines for care home staff. This is ultimately a political decision and is not mine to make. However, I do believe it is important to highlight the already existing challenge of staff shortages in care homes across Northern Ireland. The work of a carer is a demanding job and it’s been a particularly difficult 18 months. Mandatory vaccinations could result in care homes losing even more staff they cannot afford to lose, which could have an even greater detrimental effect on the residents.
“What is crucial is that all care home residents are vaccinated, the vast majority of staff are vaccinated, routine lateral flow testing for staff and visitors is carried out; and proper infection control and prevention is practiced.
“The Public Health Agency has assured me that there will be no blanket closure of care homes, recognising the detrimental impact of separating families previously. The importance of frequent, meaningful, personal contact with family and loved ones and the impact this has on the health and wellbeing of residents is well documented and something I heavily campaigned for earlier this year. That is why the Care Partner scheme is so important in ensuring families have continued access to their loved ones even if a home is in outbreak. Each resident can have two care partners and I would call on everyone to read up on the scheme and speak to your care home for more information.”