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Torres Strait leading the way in vaccination numbers

Sarah Smit -

The Torres Strait Islands are beating the national average for Indigenous vaccination, with 67 per cent of over 12's on the Islands having received a first dose, and 56 per cent fully vaccinated.

Recorded numbers are a peak for the area of far north Queensland covered by the Torres Strait and Cape Hospital and Health Service, where about 47 per cent of the eligible population aged 12 years and over are now fully vaccinated.

Torres Strait Regional Authority Chair, Mr Napau Pedro Stephen AM, said clear communication with health authorities has been key for his people to get the jab.

Past negative experiences with Government remained a cloud over the rollout for some the Torres Strait Islander people, but Stephen said having their questions answered clearly builds trust.

"People in my age group, we're in the 60s plus, we were still aware of what actually happened to Indigenous people in the past, and the things that are very much in the back of our mind is that whilst we step up to assume our responsibility, the government [has to] step up as well," he said.

"The trust will come when community know that you have given them all information that is available, but also when you actually sit with them and be honest, then they [know they will] make that decision at the end of the day, [and] that you trust them to do the right thing."

Vaccination for Torres Strait Islanders was essential because of the Islands' very close proximity to Papua New Guinea, where COVID outbreaks have seen 28 thousand infections and 335 deaths.

The northern-most Islands in the Strait are just a 4-6 hour dinghy ride away from the PNG coast.

The National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation's Dr Jason Agostino said the Torres Strait was identified early on as a priority area for vaccination against COVID-19.

"For people, up on those northern islands like Saibai, there used to be really close relationships between the people of Papua New Guinea, and the people of those islands," Dr Agostino said.

"That's really been changed through COVID, and that border zone has really changed how they interact with one another, but there is always the risk that people from PNG will come over, or people from those northern islands will go to PNG where there is a higher risk of being exposed [to COVID]."

Torres and Cape Hospital and Health Service Chief Executive Bev Hamerton said the organisation's priority was answering questions and allaying concerns.

"I know that one of our vaccine team spent an hour and a quarter with a young man in Aurukun the other day, just talking through everything that he felt he needed to know before he said, 'Okay, here's my arm'," she said.

"What we're trying to do is give everybody confidence that the best way to protect themselves is to be vaccinated at the moment."

Hamerton said getting the vaccination numbers up before Queensland reopens their borders on December 17 is the priority.

"It wakes me up at night, when I think in some communities where the health status is not that fabulous, and we've only got 50% vaccination rates, what happens [if COVID gets in]? What would be the spread like? How will I manage that?" she said.

"We do have very good response plans for every community, but it's still a worry."

Hamerton is hopeful that with the greater funding for the vaccine rollout that has arrived since the roadmap to reopening was announced, the Torres and Cape Hospital and Health Service can get communities in their area to the 80-90 per cent watermark before the border opens.

"We're willing to do anything, and we're taking any suggestions that we can from the community and turning it into action, so hopefully, by the time that December comes along, we'll be feeling much more confident that we've got most communities up into the 70, 80, 90 per cent group," she said.

By Sarah Smit

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