COVID-19 Committee: Indigenous leaders sound the alarm over reopening

Indigenous leaders are sounding the alarm over Australia reopening despite a worrying gap on vaccinations.

A senate committee on COVID-19 on Thursday also heard the vaccination rollout in regional NSW had been plagued by delivery failures and poor communication.

Rural and Remote Medical Services' Amanda Kelly revealed the organisation cancelled its first Pfizer clinic in the northern NSW town of Walgett after doses were sent to the wrong place. The error occurred just two weeks before the Delta strain entered the town.

"Had we been able to potentially start that clinic, then at least we would have had some vaccines in some arms before that outbreak happened," she said.

Ms Kelly said a lack of advertising or communication may have contributed to vaccine hesitancy in the region.

Wide gap

First dose vaccination among First Nations people lagged 26 per cent behind the broader population.

Just 57.5 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 16 and over had received a first dose, compared to 83.6 per cent across the country. On second doses, they were mired at 42.3 per cent compared to 65.4 per cent nationally.

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Operation COVID Shield leader Lieutenant-General John Frewen conceded the gap was significant, but said the Indigenous vaccination rate had outpaced the national average over the past three days.

"That's the first time that we've experienced that, so we are starting to see a closing of the gap now," he said.

"We hope that the acceleration efforts will only continue on that sort of trajectory in the weeks ahead."

John Frewen says closing the gap is hi 'number one priority'. Picture: Keegan Carroll

John Frewen says closing the gap is hi 'number one priority'. Picture: Keegan Carroll

But with the next stages of Australia's reopening plan triggered at 70 and 80 per cent full vaccination rates nationally, National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation chief executive Pat Turner warned Indigenous Australians would be left exposed.

She said vaccination was particularly sluggish among younger people who made up "the majority of our population".

"As the country opens up we have significant concerns for our people across the country," she said.

Ms Turner described a devastating outbreak in the western NSW town of Wilcannia as "entirely predictable" due to cramped living conditions. But she said repeated pleas for adequate accommodation fell on deaf ears, leaving residents to isolate in tents during the outbreak.

Meatworks as morgues

Australia had avoided an Indigenous death until the country's deadly third wave, since then 10 First Nations people have lost their lives to COVID-19.

And with just 38.8 per cent of First Nations people in the NT fully-vaccinated, the territory's chief health officer Hugh Heggie on Wednesday warned makeshift morgues in meatworks and shipping containers could be necessary after reopening.

"Who's going to take the responsibility of the first Aboriginal death in the territory?" he asked, apparently fighting back tears.

"If we don't have controls in place ... we will lose lives."

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The use of Medicare addresses to calculate the vaccination rate has been particularly vexed in the NT. The territory government has claimed its rate had been underreported by the Commonwealth, arguing its higher transient population was less likely to update their details.

The NT had the smallest population of any state or territory, along with the highest proportion of First Nations people, and the youngest median age.

The Northern Territory is concerned about its Indigenous vaccination rate. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

The Northern Territory is concerned about its Indigenous vaccination rate. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Australian National University demographer Liz Allen said those factors exacerbated problems posed by using population estimates to calculate vaccine rates.

"Populations comprised of large proportions of vulnerable communities also have a lot at stake here," she said.

"Vulnerable communities are more likely to experience difficulties in getting vaccinated and this disadvantage is further compounded by potentially implausible population data."

The federal government has argued new COVID-19 treatment Molnupiravir, set to be accessible to Australians from early next year, would be particularly beneficial in remote communities.

If approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration, the drug would be the first oral COVID-19 treatment available in Australia.

The two COVID-19 treatments currently approved by the TGA, Remedisvir and Sotrovimab, were administered intravenously and therefore difficult to transport to remote areas.

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This story Indigenous leaders sound the alarm over reopening first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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