UPDATE 4.30pm: St John’s board chairman Bishop John Parkes said the past two weeks had been a particularly difficult and tragic time for the retirement village.
“I’ve been here nine years and we’ve never seen anything like this,” he said.
“Seven families are grieving and that’s just a tragedy.”
The flu outbreak started with two residents contracting the illness for unknown reasons, then spread throughout the facility.
The bishop’s own father-in-law is one of the residents, but was lucky to not become seriously ill.
“We are a family … It affects all of us,” he said.
“We’ve had a lot of sickness in the staff and the staff have risen above to provide care.”
The St John’s chaplain had been made available to provide support to the families of the seven residents who died from the flu.
Bishop Parkes said he was confident the facility had followed all the correct procedures since the first person was diagnosed with the flu, in what was an unprecedented event in Victoria.
St John’s still had 12 residents unwell, including one person seriously ill, and would remain on lockdown until at least next week.
UPDATE 2.30pm: An eighth person is very unwell and sadly expected to die as part of a flu outbreak at St John’s Retirement Village in Wangaratta.
The death toll was already the worst Victoria’s acting chief health officer Dr Brett Sutton had seen in his six years in the job.
He has cleared the aged-care facility of any wrongdoing when managing the outbreak.
“It will always be brought in somehow, we all get flu from someone else, but it’s impossible to know how it was introduced,” Dr Sutton said.
“There were no systemic issues with the facility with infection prevention and control, but I think all facilities can do better in notifying us early because we provide robust and evidence-based advice with every outbreak and if that can be implemented at the beginning, you don’t get these huge peaks with so many numbers involved.”
Health department officers visited Wangaratta on Thursday and were satisfied the staff understood their responsibilities when it came to the sick elderly residents.
St John’s was communicating with families about the outbreak.
“It’s gone through the retirement village, the issue with flu is that it’s very contagious,” Dr Sutton said.
“It’s not a prison, people can move around.
“As much as the facility tries to keep people in their rooms and practice good infection prevention and control procedures, the elderly can sometimes wander about and infect others - it can become very hard to manage.”
He said the facility notified his office of the outbreak on August 14, two days before the first of the seven residents died.
“It’s reminder to try to protect the elderly,” he said.
“They are vaccinated in aged-care facilities largely, including this one, but the vaccine doesn’t work as well in the very elderly.
“It’s incumbent on those who are visiting and the staff in those facilities to try and be immunised and to exclude themselves from work if they’re unwell.”
The outbreak was referred to the Commonwealth, which had responsibility for aged-care facilities and will conduct its own investigation.
Seven people have died in a Wangaratta nursing home in just two weeks during a dangerous flu outbreak.
Victoria’s acting chief health officer Dr Brett Sutton confirmed the St John’s Retirement Village residents who died were aged between 70 and 94 and had other conditions that made them particularly susceptible.
The facility had 123 people affected by the influenza outbreak over the past few weeks out of 146 residents and 200 staff.
The Department of Health and Human Services has worked with St John’s to manage the outbreak, ensuring strict infection control measures, and has reported the outbreak is now subsiding.
“We are at the peak of one of the worst flu seasons ever and the elderly are one of highest risk groups,” Dr Sutton said.
“In aged care facilities, the flu can spread quickly.”
“Sadly, for the frail - and people with underlying health conditions - the flu can be very serious.
“About 800 people in Victoria die each year from influenza – the most of any communicable disease.”
He urged visitors to aged-care facilities to use the hand hygiene gel widely available because the flu was a highly contagious viral infection.
“This is a timely reminder to all visitors that washing their hands with soap before visiting loved ones in aged care or hospital is extremely important and if you are sick you should avoid visiting loved ones in an aged care facility or hospital,” he said.