With the COVID-19 outbreak in western New South Wales growing by the day, Aboriginal Community Controlled Health organisations (ACCHOs) are working overtime to get local mob vaccinated.

Currently, most COVID-19 cases in the region are Aboriginal people, with Guardian Australia reporting a figure of 40 per cent being unvaccinated Aboriginal young people between 10 and 19-years-old.

As of August 18, there are an estimated 159 cases of COVID-19 in both the far west and western NSW regions.

Aboriginal Medical Services (AMS) on the ground have been leading the charge in vaccinations, whilst educating and supporting community through the statewide lockdown.

CEO of Coonamble and Dubbo Aboriginal Medical Services and Chair of the Aboriginal Health & Medical Research Council (AH&MRC) Phil Naden told NIT there has been anxiety across community since the COVID-19 outbreak started.

Despite this, the Wiradjuri and Gamilaroi man said that both Dubbo and Coonamble AMS remain “strong” in their messaging.

“We want people to get tested, we want people to get vaccinated and we want people to comply with the public health orders and remain in lockdown during this time,” he said.

Considering the high rate of young Aboriginal people contracting the virus, Naden notes there has been some vaccine hesitancy within the community’s young people. 

“Our young people seem to think that they are a bit more resilient to COVID-19,” he said.

“Everyone has different values, so everyone has a bit of hesitancy around getting the vaccine. But we educate our people particularly around … making sure they get the jab so that they can minimise that risk in their own community and their own families.”

“We want people to be vigilant, and aware of the fact that we do have people passing away from this illness.”

Naden said there has also been barriers to public health education.

“The circumstance for a lot of our people is that they haven’t got access to social media so we need to be proactively advocating and getting the message out to people in different ways,” Naden said.

Naden notes that the AMS have had strong support from organisations such as AH&MRC, the Western NSW Primary Health Network and the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO).

NACCHO has developed a strong line of communication with Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations working in the west and are supporting more point of care testing machines being placed in health services.

Additional point of care machines, which can rapidly detect COVID-19, are being placed in Walgett, Dubbo and Bourke.

“This will allow those health services to remain open and provide vaccinations and support to their communities. At this stage, we are seeing health workers in western NSW vaccinating as many people as possible,” said a NACCHO spokesperson.

Despite the high rates of Aboriginal young people presenting with COVID-19, NACCHO said there are “no plans to reduce the age” of vaccination.

Currently, only Indigenous people 12 and over are eligible for vaccination.

With only 1,000 Indigenous young people between the ages of 12 and 18 vaccinated, NACCHO plans to see 80 per cent fully vaccinated by the end of October.

Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt was questioned on ABC Radio regarding the low rates of vaccinations for Indigenous peoples.

Minister Wyatt denied comments that the Commonwealth vaccine rollout was a “failure” but did claim that the movement of Indigenous people back to Country is partially responsible for recent COVID-19 outbreaks.

“We need to track family members who are frightened, who may go back to their communities. And that’s what’s happened,” said the Minister.

“Instead of staying home, containing the infection, they’ve returned. So, we’ve now had to go on a very proactive footing of ensuring that people get tested, have a vaccination and stay home because you’ve got to distance from each other.”

On Wednesday, Labor proposed a nationwide COVID-19 plan for First Nations communities.

 

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In a press conference Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney said the Government “should have been prepared” to avoid the western NSW outbreak.

“The idea that vaccines had to be rushed out to western NSW suggests to me one thing; that there was an absence of vaccines in the first place,” she said.

The Shadow Minister denied comments that the low vaccination rate is due to vaccine hesitancy.

“I am not going to do what the Federal Government has done and blame the low vaccination rates on vaccine hesitancy, the vaccines have not been available for people to get vaccinated.”

By Rachael Knowles