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More than 30 residential disability services linked to Covid-19 outbreaks in Victoria

More than 30 residential disability services are linked to active Covid-19 outbreaks in Victoria, according to state government figures, as people with disabilities brace for the effects of the city’s six-week stage four lockdown.

Flinders Street station during Melbourne’s stage 4 lockdown. Victorian government figures show 37 residential disability services are linked to active COVID outbreaks. Photograph: Speed Media/REX/Shutterstock

Respite Services Australia, a group home in Moonee Ponds with 10 residents, has 30 recorded cases linked to the facility, authorities said on Thursday, while a total of 10 infections have been previously connected to Aruma Disability Services in Pascoe Vale.

Aruma confirmed to Guardian Australia a further three cases at separate facilities it operates on Thursday.

Government figures obtained by Guardian Australia show there were 71 active cases in residential disability services across 37 sites, consisting of 24 residents and 47 staff. There are 6,500 people receiving disability accommodation or respite services across the state.

Meanwhile, figures provided to Guardian Australia by the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission on Thursday showed three Victorian NDIS participants and one worker have died after testing positive since March. The Guardian sought clarification on when the deaths occurred but did not receive a response by the deadline, although the Age reported a Victorian disability nurse had died in April.

An NDIS Commission spokesperson did confirm a total of 42 Victorian NDIS participants and 78 workers have now tested positive for Covid-19 since March.

She said the majority of the “reports in Victoria have been received since June”, during Victoria’s second wave. Of Victoria’s 100,000 NDIS participants, 5,300 live in group settings.

The new figures come as people with disabilities and their advocates warn they are expecting to do it tough during the second lockdown, with some raising concerns about access to testing, the impact of panic buying on their access to groceries, and potential impacts on the services they rely on.

Under Victoria’s stage four rules, disability services are considered permitted workers and people with disabilities are able to travel beyond the 5km limit for essential therapies. Informal carers will also be able to continue to assist when required despite the tough new rules.

Jae Evergreen, 34, is autistic and moved to Melbourne for work reasons just over a week ago.

“I need help with cleaning due to executive functioning difficulties and being autistic,” Evergreen said.

“I’ve decided for my safety and wellbeing that I’m going to pause in-home services until the stage four restrictions end, and hopefully manage myself in the meantime.”

Evergreen, who receives an NDIS package, was pleased about being able to use the funding on priority access to supermarket deliveries, but said there had been “ongoing issues with panic buying and receiving the things I order”.

“I also need regular physiotherapy and podiatry due to a physical disability, and I’m not sure the best options for these as they can’t be provided via telehealth.

“Telehealth is great for some services – I see an OT and psychologist via telehealth, but it’s not helpful for the hands-on services I need.”

On Thursday, the federal government announced it would loosen NDIS rules to allow people to divert funds from now-closed day programs or special schools towards support workers.

In an announcement welcomed by participants last month, the NDIS also clarified that participants could use their funds to purchase PPE equipment.

Comparisons have been made between the casualised workforce in aged care – where the majority of deaths have occurred during Victoria’s second wave – and the disability sector, though the latter caters to far fewer residents per facility, usually between four and six.

Survey results from a University of Melbourne report released this week found 23% of disability workers had not received any Covid-19 infection control training, while some workers were buying their own PPE.

The report, from the university’s disability and health unit, warned infections in group homes presented “very real difficulties for workers with little or no training who now have to implement meticulous infection control procedures and use full PPE”.

A Victorian government spokeswoman said the commonwealth was “the primary funder and regulator of disability services in Australia” but state authorities had been working with the federal government to ensure the safety of staff and residents.

The spokeswoman said all disability support workers were required to wear a single-use surgical mask when at work at all times and that the government had provided more than 195,600 masks to service providers from the state stockpile.

“We have stood up a dedicated disability rapid response outbreak unit to coordinate our coronavirus response with the commonwealth and to supplement the role of the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission – we have also been helping the commonwealth to distribute PPE to providers of residential care and supported residential services,” the spokeswoman said.

An Aruma spokeswoman said no workers or staff had been hospitalised due to the outbreak at its Pascoe Vale home and only mild symptoms were experienced and that staff would likely be cleared to return in the next few days.

The spokeswoman said the organisation had activated a full lockdown and isolation of the home, including a deep clean, full PPE, and special pay entitlements for staff including paid pandemic leave and boosted rates for people working with Covid-19 cases.

She said three staff had also tested positive within Aruma’s other facilities.

An NDIS commission spokeswoman said it was working closely with Victorian authorities and the National Disability Insurance Agency “to monitor the disability sector and to support providers where infections are identified in residential and other settings”.

The spokeswoman said Victoria was responsible for regulating “around 45% of residential disability services” due to existing transition arrangements.

Respite Services Australia did not respond to a request for comment.

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