Omicron has spread to dozens of aged care homes and the Health Minister has received an extraordinary warning that staffing shortages in the sector could become catastrophic if more workers go into isolation.
A broad coalition of residents, workers and facility operators has written to Andrew Little asking him to take urgent action over a long-term shortage of nurses that has become a crisis after Covid-19 shut borders and created fierce competition for workers.
The "coalition on fair pay for aged-care nurses" includes Age Concern, Grey Power, the Nurses Organisation, Alzheimers NZ, home and aged-care associations, the Council of Christian Social Services and the Retirement Villages Association.
Aged care is short of 1000 registered nurses - 20 per cent of the workforce - and a difference in government funding means district health boards can pay significantly more money to hospital nurses, and many have been actively headhunting aged care nurses for roles.
In a letter sent on Tuesday, the coalition asked Little to urgently introduce pay parity for aged care nurses, and boost training programmes.
The letter also warned about what could happen "with Omicron rife in the community and already impacting dozens of rest homes".
"The reality is that as much as 40 per cent of all staff in a rest home could be stood down at any one time. This would be difficult at best of times, but potentially catastrophic on top of the current shortage."
(Most of the aged care homes with Omicron have only one or two cases. However, a quarter or residents and staff at an Auckland facility, Mercy Parklands in Ellerslie, have been infected - although so far none have needed hospital care.
Residents and workers in aged care are now triple-vaccinated, a vital protection that was unavailable during outbreaks in 2020, some of which claimed lives.)
Grey Power president Jan Pentecost said the group was part of the coalition because "things are getting extremely serious for older people needing care".
"We can't afford to see rest homes collapse."
Alzheimers NZ chief executive Catherine Hall warned the "dire" nursing shortage "is a significant issue that puts the care and wellbeing of our older people at risk".
"It is frustrating that while the sector has had supportive conversations with Minister Little, he has been very slow to get to a decision and take action."
Nikki Hurst, the chief executive of the NZ Council of Christian Social Services, which runs a range of services including aged care homes, said without urgent government action many facilities would close.
"Reopening them will be near on impossible. The brutal reality is that without nurses our services have to close. More New Zealanders will have no choice but to care for their loved ones at home, with the attendant stresses on families that can bring, including the prospect of increased incidences of elder abuse as already pressured families struggle to cope."
The coalition's formation and lobbying effort follows an investigation in last Saturday's Weekend Herald, detailing how serious staff shortages had become.
Nurses are working double and even triple shifts - 24 hours straight - to plug gaps, and facilities are breaching their contract by not having a nurse at all times in hospital-level areas.
In recent months a shortage of nurses had forced 20 facilities to close all or some of their hospital-level beds. One rest home shutting its doors is Wharekaka in Martinborough, South Wairarapa.
Elizabeth Kershaw, 91, was only days away from moving in. Her son Richard has her on the waitlist for another home, but without other local options she will in the meantime stay living on his farm. That's despite her health requiring someone to be close by, around the clock.
The director general of health was notified of 851 incidents last year when an aged care facility didn't have enough nurses to ensure the safety of residents - a 227 per cent increase from 2020.
Aged care nurses are generally paid about $10-15,000 less than a hospital nurse. That has enabled DHBs, who are badly short-staffed themselves, to poach a significant number of aged care nurses.
Simon Wallace, the chief executive of the Aged Care Association, which represents most facility owners, said that pay gap could widen to as much as $20,000 when a DHB nursing pay equity deal rolls out in July - something that would drive even more nurses from the sector.
Jennie Herring of the Care Association, which represents many smaller aged care homes, said the industry was in crisis "and older people and their families will suffer".
Little has said he has already instructed officials to urgently work on pay parity for aged care and other nurses, but couldn't yet say when that was likely to happen.
"I accept there is a degree of urgency to it. And that is why I have been pressing officials to get on with it," Little said.
"All parts of the health sector are suffering a shortage of nurses. It has been a long-building problem but I am satisfied at the measures we are taking to address it."
One complication, Little said, is that aged care is made up of large companies as well as "charitable and small family-owned facilities who are in genuine need of additional support".
Extra funding shouldn't "line the pockets of the large corporates who just use it to pay an extra dividend to their shareholders".
Little acknowledged the severity of nursing shortages, but said the Aged Care Association's claim that aged care is on the verge of collapse was "catastrophising".
It was too early to estimate the cost of pay parity for aged care, Little said. The sector coalition says previous government modelling has indicated about $113 million a year.
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