Victorian CHO Brett Sutton defends standing staff during the deadly COVID-19 outbreak

Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton has defended his decision to lay off all staff at St. Basil’s geriatric care center during a fatal COVID-19 outbreak last year, calling it a “terrible trade-off” to reduce transmission.

Professor Sutton was grilled at a coronal inquiry today into his move, on 21 July last year, to regard all staff who had worked at St Basil’s between 1 July and 15 July as close contacts, which required that they were to be quarantined for 14 days.

The direction meant the entire Fawkner home workforce was fired the following day, despite concerns from local health officials, who warned bringing in replacement staff would have catastrophic consequences for residents’ care.

On Friday, Mr Sutton told the investigation that his decision to lay off the workforce of the senior center was necessary to prevent the virus from spreading further in the home as well as to the wider community.

“This is against a disease that kills one in three people infected in geriatric care, even 10 or 20 additional infections in that facility would have killed five or 10 individuals,” Professor Sutton said.

“It is very clear that there are these terrible trade-offs in the provision of care and welfare and the risk of transfer.”

CHO defends decisions, describing ‘heartfelt grief’ for residents who suffered

Within a few days after the dismissal of St. Basil’s staff, doctors were called in to assess the home, which witnessed widespread neglect and malnutrition of patients.

In July and August last year, 50 residents died, at least 45 of them of COVID-19.

Peter Rozen QC, who helps the forensic pathologist, said St Basil’s had the highest COVID-19 death rate in the country, questioning why Professor Sutton had not checked whether the Commonwealth had managed to bring in an “appropriate” rising workforce.

“You were not told there would be a fundamental problem, were you? But you did not ask either,” Mr Rozen said.

“No, I did not ask,” replied Professor Sutton.

Between July 19 and August 2 last year, 61 workers at St Basil’s tested positive for COVID-19.

Brett Sutton speaks at a COVID presser.
Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton made the decision to classify all of St Basil’s workers as close contacts in July 2020.(ABC News)

Professor Sutton told the study that he recognized that having experienced staff played a “central role” in handling the transmission of the virus. He said, however, that concerns about finding a replacement workforce were not raised with him.

“I accept that there is further evidence that could have been brought to my attention, yes,” he said.

“My guide had the caveat that leave would only take place when a suitable workforce was in place.”

Professor Sutton told the study that he believed his decision to fire staff provided the “greatest chance of saving lives”.

“My belief at the time was, and still is, that – if the guidance on close contacts had not been taken – the likely outcome was infection of close to all residents and staff at the facility with the loss of several lives.”

However, he also said the events could have been inevitable.

“In an outbreak like St Basil’s, where the infection had sown so far and so fast, it may be that even with the dismissal of all staff, the final result could not be prevented,” he said.

He also apologized to the families of the residents who had died, saying he felt “heartfelt grief” over the pain and suffering they had experienced.

Lack of cooperation from St Basil’s management was not foreseen

Today, the inquiry also heard that Professor Sutton’s directive on the isolation of staff was triggered by the former chairman of St Basil’s, Konstantin Kontis’ refusal to lay off the plant’s staff two days earlier.

In an email sent to Victorian health department workers, Mr Kontis said he would escalate the matter to the Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church as well as the media.

“I am not prepared to instruct my staff to leave the premises and to bring in alternative staff,” Mr Kontis wrote.

“Until and unless I receive such a directive, I instruct my staff to remain in place and continue their operations and stop having endless meetings that can be used to care for my residents.”

Previous testimony given to the investigation has accused St Basil’s management of failing to help with the public health response despite the worsening outbreak.

Rozen asked Professor Sutton why he did not give a direct order to home leaders to cooperate.

“It did not occur to me that it was a specific direction that was required,” Professor Sutton said.

“I had an expectation that if he [Konstantin Kontis] should he abide by it, the white flag would in fact be hoisted … that he would cooperate with the other elements. “

Sir. Kontis is scheduled to testify on the last day of the investigation.

The investigation continues.

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