People evacuated from aged care at the height of Victoria's coronavirus crisis, which has claimed the lives of more than 600 elderly people in care, are being returned to nursing homes where outbreaks occurred as case numbers drop.
The task force set up to tackle widespread outbreaks within aged care is focusing on returning residents as it devotes extra resources to preventing new outbreaks at nursing homes in hotspot areas such as Casey in Melbourne's south-east.
The Victorian Aged Care Response Centre, a joint effort of the state and federal governments, said active cases within aged care homes had dropped to 328 from its peak of 2075 in mid-August.
The response centre's executive officer, Joe Buffone, said the "acute phase" of its emergency response was now coming to an end, and the focus would now shift to returning people to their homes and battling new outbreaks.
The effort has already included the deployment of health teams to 10 care homes in Casey after a coronavirus cluster in the local government area rapidly grew to 43 cases before being brought under control.
Mr Buffone said the response centre's focus was now on prevention and recovery, including returning residents to coronavirus-hit homes they had left, either to go to hospital or to stay with family or friends.
The next phase of the centre's work also involved helping homes with existing outbreaks of COVID-19 bring the the contagion under control, with military teams making visits to sites, training staff in infection control and the use of protective gear.
The response centre said it was supporting 11 aged care facilities to progressively transfer residents back from hospital or other alternative accommodation but that only 45 people had been returned to their homes through the centre's efforts since September 1.
There have been 1978 cases of COVID-19 in Victorian aged care homes since the outbreak began. Of those, 1144 people have recovered, 604 have died and 230 are still battling the virus.
"From day one the response centre has focused on the dignity and care of residents and the safety of staff, and this continues through the recovery phase," Mr Buffone said.
Mr Buffone, a former Country Fire Authority chief seconded by the federal government to run the response centre, is heading to Canberra to lead the Home Affairs Department's crisis preparation for the summer bushfire season, but says he will stay with the Victorian aged care response for as long as he is required.
Aged and Community Services Australia chief executive Pat Sparrow said lessons must be learnt from the aged care outbreaks, with more focus on prevention, rather than simply responding to outbreaks.
"We need a routine testing approach in aged care, that will pick up asymptomatic workers, to assist us in keeping COVID out of facilities," Ms Sparrow said.
"We need more workers in aged care which is an opportunity to contribute to the country’s economic recovery.
"The bottom line is Australia needs to reform its aged care system so providers can deliver the services the community expects and that providers want to deliver both during and after the pandemic."
Meanwhile, Monash Health is the big winner from $30 million in state government spending announced on Tuesday to upgrade 53 publicly-run aged care site homes, which house nearly 1800 elderly Victorians.
The state's largest public health service will get more than $4.4 million to upgrade its care homes in Doveton, Noble Park and two facilities in Cheltenham.
Announcing the upgrades, the state's Aged Care Minister, Luke Donnellan, struck a conciliatory tone towards his federal counterparts, praising the role of the joint response centre.
"It's brought all the resources in we need to support the aged care sector across the state, whether it be the Defence Force, AusMat [Australian Medical Assistance Teams], the [Commonwealth] Department of Health, the [state] Department of Health and Human Services, they're all in there together," Mr Donnellan said.