An inquest into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of 19 aged care residents in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic has heard details about the final days of their lives.
- During the outbreak, 37 of Newmarch House’s 97 residents contracted COVID
- The facility is owned and run by Anglicare Community Services
- One witness said his mother’s breathing apparatus was not operating when he went to visit
The three-week inquest is examining what occurred during a 65-day outbreak at the Newmarch House aged care facility in Western Sydney from April to June of 2020.
The facility is owned and run by Anglicare Community Services.
During the outbreak, 37 of the facility’s 97 residents contracted the virus and 19 of them died.
Counsel assisting the coroner Simon Buchen SC told the inquest on day one of the hearings that prior to April 2020, the residential facility had been a respected institution.
“Newmarch House was highly regarded and was seen as a desirable place to be, in particular because of the qualities of its staff,” he said.
But Mr Buchen then spent more than an hour detailing the experiences of each of the residents who died.
They included stories about residents not being attended to or fed by staff, injuries sustained in the days prior to their deaths, and the distress residents experienced when they were not permitted in-person visits.
He described a day when 89-year-old Blanche Billinghurst’s son visited, only to find his mother’s breathing apparatus was not operating.
“Glenn … discovered that the oxygen mask that Blanche was using had no oxygen flow, as it was empty,” he said.
In another case, a resident’s family claimed they were threatened when they requested to remove their 93-year-old relative from the facility.
“On 18 April, Barry’s family sent an email to Newmarch House asking if they could remove Barry from the home. They were informed that there was a public health order in place prohibiting any resident from leaving the home,” he told the court.
“Barry’s family requested a copy of the public health order.
“The family alleges that in response, Dr Bradley Forssman, director of the public health unit, advised that although there was no order in force for COVID-negative residents, he would consider issuing a public health order if the family attempted to remove Barry … a breach of such an order carried a fine or imprisonment.”
The family of 76-year-old resident Ann Fahey claims they were not contacted when she tested positive to COVID, and only found out when a staff member mentioned it in passing.
Speaking outside court, Ms Fahey’s granddaughter, Nicole, said she wanted answers.
Anthony Bowe, whose mother Pat Shea contracted COVID at Newmarch and survived, agreed.
“There are just countless breaches of infection control. A lot of people should [have] gone to hospital straight away to give the negative cohort a chance of not catching it, and it didn’t happen,” he said.
Mr Buchen said the inquest would pay particular attention to the decisions made to care for unwell residents at Newmarch House rather than transfer them to hospital.
Ms Fahey said her main goal was to improve conditions for future aged care residents.
“As a family of a deceased and of a victim, we want to make sure that no-one has to go through the trauma that my family has dealt with,” she said.
“Our main focus is to make sure no other resident has to go through that worry.”
Deputy state coroner Derek Lee said the inquest would seek to determine whether the circumstances provided an “opportunity to learn, to change and to improve with broader considerations in mind”.
“Whilst an inquest necessarily looks back in time, it does so with a forward-thinking focus,” he said.
“These broader considerations have particular significance in light of the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic at an individual level and at broader organisational levels.”
There are currently more than 1,000 active COVID outbreaks in aged care facilities across Australia.