Christine Golding, whose mother, Efraxia Tsalanidis, passed away, described scenes of “chaos” in the handling of the COVID-19 outbreak at St Basil’s Home for Aged Care in Fawkner at the Coronial Inquest into 50 deaths on Monday.
On Wednesday, Kathy Bourinaris, whose mother, Fotini Atzarakis, went in for two weeks of respite care on 29 June but never returned to her home because of the outbreak, said the running of the facility was like a “circus”.
“When I think of a circus, I think of people running around, ongoing craziness, just not knowing what is going on. And that is the feeling I got when I rang (St Basil’s),” she told the court.
“Why don’t you know what is happening? Why don’t you know what to do? Why don’t you have structure and a plan?”: Their sentiments were echoed by other family members, with 10 relatives of the Greek Australians who died being called to give evidence.
Metaxia (Maxine) Tsihlakis, daughter of Georgia Mistinikos, told the court she saw her mother for the last time in April. She died in hospital on 23 July.
“They were there like sitting ducks. Locked in. Nobody could free them so they could get some help,” she said on Friday, likening the handling of the outbreak as “almost criminal manslaughter”.
Ms Golding found out from The Age that a Federal surge workforce was sent in. She told the Court: “You want to save your loved ones. You don’t want them to be left in there, especially when you’re warned that if they stay there, their welfare cannot be guaranteed. And the doctors are saying they will die from neglect, not COVID.”
Dr Naveen Tenneti, a public health registrar, explained on Friday that workplace policies in place at the time meant that staff could still be allowed to go to work if they were asymptomatic – this explained why Staff Member A was rostered to work after telling her manager at St Basil’s that her family was unwell.
Dr Ian Norton, who compiled an independent expert report about the response to the outbreak, described the delay of eight days between the identification of the case and testing of residents and staff as “the root cause of a serious outbreak not being contained”.
Other policies and procedures were not followed. Nurse Annabelle Fitzpatrick described on Thursday how staff were left to their own devices. “We never do training,” she said, referring to the lack of formal instruction.
Her colleague, Jasmina Velkovski, who worked at St Basil’s, said she brought her own mask. She said she first saw masks available for visitors on 11 July, two days after the first positive case was reported. Staff only received protective equipment on 13 July, whereas James Mee, a personal-care attendant, said that staff were told not to wear masks so as to not scare residents.
“Staff members were quite concerned about how we were going to care for residents who had COVID or what the plan was. (St Basil’s Nursing Director) Vicky (Kos) just laughed at staff concerns,” he said.
Neil Callagher, who headed up the Commonwealth’s Aged Care COVID-19 Implementation Branch, was tasked with finding replacement staff and turned to Aspen Medical under a multi-million dollar government contract. Despite the gravity of this undertaking, the court heard that Mr Callagher did not have a university degree and, prior to working at the Department of Health in 2013, had “no particular work experience in relation to aged care”.
Grilled all day on Wednesday until 4.15pm, the full scale of bungling unfolded as the Commonwealth government made a bad situation worse.
“I definitely would have benefited from more knowledge, especially from the health service people who were there,” Mr Callagher said in hindsight.
Though he favoured a Commonwealth push for Victoria’s Department of Health to reduce patients by sending them to hospitals in order “to give them a fighting chance”, he went to work gathering a surge workforce, though on the eve of the replacement on 22 July, the numbers did not add up.
“Our concern was about not just our ability to make up the actual number required, but the actual type of staff that would be required, particularly around clinical governance,” he said. “Once that is removed, the risk to resident welfare increases significantly.”
Mr Callagher, in his evidence, had given a statement about “pushback” by then chairman Konstantinos Kontis, who resigned in September 2020.
“He was reluctant to proceed with the decision that was being imposed upon him,” Mr Callagher said regarding Mr Kontis.
Mr Kontis was advocating against the 100 per cent furlough staff. In a meeting on 21 July, 2020, at 3pm, it had been flagged that there were independent living units on site, and Mr Kontis “wondered whether these could be considered on staff who are isolating to provide guidance to (the) new workforce”, according to court documents.
Mr Callagher told the court that “he probably did raise this”.
From a Greek environment to negligence
Residents who were used to hearing the Greek language, enjoying ouzo days, and events with coffee and Neos Kosmos, were suddenly faced with different faces whose language they could not speak.
Ms Golding said her father asked to go to St Basil’s in 2011, after reading about its development in Neos Kosmos, and her mother, Efraxia, followed suit and remained there after her father’s death in 2014.
Ms Tsihlakis said on Thursday that her mother was provided adequate care for two years after she had a serious accident in 2018, where she suffered some brain injury and it was recommended by doctors that she should go to a residential aged-care home.
“There was a large number of Greek-background residents and we were unaware what Alzheimer’s and dementia really meant and we thought that she could socialise with other people,” she said. “It was run by the Church as well.”
Once her mother was moved to the hostel, Ms Tsihlakis said she was disappointed by the service.
“I must admit that I was disappointed. First of all, she was constantly sitting down. The staff seemed to have been run off their feet,” she said.
Families point to lip service
Ms Golding spoke of a “complete and utter mess” following the arrival of the surge workforce.
A social worker from Adelaide was appointed to speak to Ms Golding who said: “She was unable to provide me with any information on my mother’s well-being that day. Her call was completely unexpected and I felt it was another attempt to depersonalise and put further road blocks on my ability to communicate directly with St Basil’s and directly with my mother.”
Ms Golding added that another social worker had called her from Tasmania.
“What was the point of it?”
Ms Bourinaris said a social worker had been appointed to communicate with her family. “I felt like it was just, ‘tick the box, you’ve got a social worker, yeah, we’ve done that’,” she said, but all she wanted to know was about her mother’s belongings – information which could not be offered.
Months after her mother passed, she was called to be asked if her mother was “still interested in care and respite and wanted to tour the facility”.
“I’m thinking, ‘how much worse can this get, when four months later, they don’t know what they are doing,” she told the court.
“I can tell you the first time I received anything from St Basil’s was when they wanted to do a one-year memorial. Before that, I got nothing from nobody,” she said.
Relatives seek closure
“I’m here to bring my mother’s story to life,” Ms Golding said.
“This is about real people. Real people that lived, that had hopes and dreams, that suffered because of systematic failures that I’m sure the court will explore,” she said.
Ms Bourinaris said “someone needs to be held accountable”.
“Something needs to be done. My mother should still be here and so should these other 45 people. No one else should ever go through this,” she said. “For me, I’m worst now than I was back then,” she said.