Coronavirus is rapidly spreading in vulnerable Aboriginal communities of western NSW with at least a dozen new cases and worse yet to come.
Vaccinations rates are particularly low among indigenous Australians, but elders were making headway convincing locals to roll up their sleeves.
Dubbo, about 500km northwest of Sydney, is the epicentre of Australia’s first major outbreak among the indigenous population.
The dangerous Delta strain is affecting young indigenous people particularly badly with half those infected being children.
Nearly 40 percent of the cases in Western NSW’s Aboriginal community are kids aged between 10 and 19
Dubbo recorded 16 new cases on Tuesday, after recording 33 new cases the previous day. A further two cases were detected in Bourke and one in Broken Hill.
There are now 118 cases in the Western NSW Health District, including 107 in Dubbo, the vast majority, more than 100, of whom are indigenous.
Local MP Dugald Saunders warned the outbreak was just getting started and a serious concern as Covid affects Aboriginals worse than other groups.
‘There is no doubt the Dubbo situation is going to get worse before it gets better,’ he told Daily Mail Australia on Monday.
‘We’ll continue to [see cases] grow in the foreseeable number of days. Most of the positive cases have been infectious in the community.’
However, federal Indigenous Minister Ken Wyatt said vaccination rates in the community were improving thanks to ‘straight talk’ by elders.
He said eligible recipients in Indigenous communities getting their first vaccine dose had hit 30 percent, while 15 percent were now fully vaccinated.
‘The strength of our community in all of these initiatives has been tremendous,’ he said.
‘They have, of their own initiative, said, “we want to protect our elders”.
‘The young ones are joining in by saying, “we need to keep our knowledge keepers”.
Federal Indigenous Minister Ken Wyatt said vaccination rates in the community were improving thanks to ‘straight talk’ by elders
Western Area Health staff at new testing location in West Dubbo as positive cases grow in the area, with 35 new cases recorded in Dubbo and Walgett on Monday
‘In some places they thought that they would be fairly distant from what was happening in capital cities.
‘There is now a realisation that this virus can travel anywhere because of the movement of people.’
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said extra resources were being sent to the region.
‘We do see it as a serious situation, and we’re moving quickly to work with the NSW government to address it,’ he said.
Chief medical officer Paul Kelly said a collaborative effort between the Royal Flying Doctor Service, local Aboriginal medical services, NSW Health and the Defence Force vaccinated ‘literally thousands’ in towns including Walgett, Bourke and Orana.
Western NSW Local Health District chief executive Scott McLachlan said the outbreak, which jumped from western Sydney to regional NSW, was hitting the area hard.
‘The vast majority of cases are Aboriginal and we’ve got nearly 40 percent of the cases are kids between 10 and 19, so this is a really serious warning for parents and kids running around,’ he said.
‘There is no doubt the Dubbo situation is going to get worse before it gets better,’ Dubbo MP Dugald Saunders told Daily Mail Australia
Local Aboriginal leaders are urging the community to stay home despite and not see extended family members
Just 15 per cent of indigenous Australians are fully vaccinated against coronavirus, and are statistically more likely to become seriously ill.
Of 6,600 people across the Walgett and Bourke local government areas, 13 per cent were fully vaccinated and 34 per cent received one dose.
Mr Saunders said ensuring Covid public health messages about distancing, masks and vaccinations were relayed to the local Aboriginal community was one of the most difficult scenarios facing authorities.
‘We’ve worked collaboratively with health, council and community leaders to provide messaging around that and to reach areas that don’t usually receive mainstream media,’ he said.
The Dubbo MP said Aboriginal community liaison officers and NSW Police were going door-to-door to help with safety messaging around Covid transmission.
‘Our Aboriginal health team have also been out doing in-home testing for those who can’t or won’t go to testing clinics,’ he said.
‘For now we actually want people to get tested ahead of vaccination because a lot of people are possibly unwell, and you don’t want to jab people when they’re unwell.’
Residents queue to be tested at new testing location in West Dubbo – the city entered a snap seven-day lockdown on August 11
More than 25,000 people had been tested in Dubbo in the past five days,
Walgett and Brewarrina Aboriginal Medical Service’s acting chief executive Katrina Ward warned the area’s primary health network was running short of masks.
‘The community is fearful (about the vaccines) and there still is some reluctance, but they are realising that this is the best means of protection we’ve got,’ she told ABC radio.
‘I’m very concerned.’
Mr Saunders said if infections rapidly increased in areas such as Bourke and Walgett, people would need to be transported to Dubbo.
‘The Royal Flying Doctor Service is geared up and ready to go, and is based here in Dubbo,’ he said.
‘The hospital in Dubbo is set up and incredibly well resourced so we think we have the facilities to cope.’
Brendon Cutmore, Western NSW Local Health District Director of Aboriginal Health and Wellbeing, told 9News Aboriginal people had to change their usual reaction to a crisis.
‘Normally our community response and our family response is that we gather together,’ he said.
‘We normally take care of each other in the way of pulling everybody together, you know, at nan and pops’ house, or at aunty and uncles’ home, but right now we’ve got to do this in a very different way.
‘I really need to encourage everybody to stay in their home… Don’t go down to nan and pops’ house or to aunty and uncles’ house to drop anything off to people or to check in. Use the phone, send a text.’
Dubbo entered a snap, seven-day lockdown on August 11.
More than 60 exposure sites had been identified, most in Dubbo but also in Bourke, Walgett, Gilgandra and Narromine.
INDIGENOUS AUSTRALIANS – VACCINATION RATES
* Just 15 per cent of Indigenous Australians are fully vaccinated against coronavirus as it moves through western NSW communities.
* National figures show just over 29 per cent of Indigenous Australians have had one vaccine dose and 15 per cent are double-dosed.
* Nearly half of all Australians aged 16 and older have had one jab and just over 26 per cent are fully vaccinated.
* In the Walgett and Bourke local government areas, of 6,600 people, 13 per cent were fully vaccinated and 34 per cent had received one dose.