With COVID-19 reaching western NSW, health clinics and Aboriginal health experts are working overtime to protect Aboriginal communities.

After ordering a seven-day statewide lockdown effective as of Saturday evening, NSW Health recorded on Monday a total 478 cases and eight deaths overnight.

This follows the week-long lockdown announced on Wednesday for the Walgett Shire area, along with the Brewarrina, Coonamble, Bogan, Narromine, Warren and Gilgandra Shires.

Active cases of COVID-19 have now been confirmed in Dubbo, Walgett, Bathurst and Orange.

On Tuesday, Walgett reported its first active case of COVID-19 in the community. Health authorities confirmed the case was a 27-year-old man who was in custody at Bathurst Correctional Centre.

Tested on Saturday, the man was released on bail on Monday and returned home to Walgett before receiving his positive result on Wednesday afternoon.

Walgett, 300km inland from Dubbo with an Indigenous population of 40 per cent. Photo Supplied Facebook.

Bathurst Correctional Centre was forced into a lockdown, with another positive case confirmed at the prison.

Almost 300km inland from Dubbo and with an Indigenous population of 40 per cent, all hands are on deck in Walgett to ensure the community is protected against the virus.

Walgett’s Dharriwaa Elders Group released a statement calling for more resourcing and support for the community.

“This is a very worrying time for our community,” the statement read.

“Many of our Elders and others in Walgett experience health and social issues that make them vulnerable to contracting COVID-19. The impact on our community could be devastating.”

The Elders have put forth a list of requests including calls for more nurses, more masks, mobile vaccination services, access to quarantining accommodation, accommodation for people who are homeless, and increased resourcing and support for community wellbeing.

Statement from Dharriwaa Elders Group in Walgett. Photo Supplied Twitter.

Bawrunga Medical Services are operating in communities surrounding Walgett, including Gilgandra, Dubbo and Gulargambone.

Bawrunga’s Dubbo clinic was listed as a hotspot, after reporting a 10-year-old Aboriginal boy had presented to the clinic on August 4 with COVID-19.

Western NSW Operations Manager Steven McMahon told NIT that the doctor on-call has been tested and sent for a 14-day isolation, and the clinic has been deep-cleaned.

“Even though we were not required to do a deep clean of the practice, we’ve decided to do one. There was no hesitation, that is going to give both the public and staff doctors confidence,” said McMahon.

The clinic has been administering the AstraZeneca vaccine to community but have faced resourcing issues.

“Our clinic is swamped, we’re doing one full day a week, and we’re pushing that to one-and-a-half days,” said McMahon.

Whilst servicing the Aboriginal community, Bawrunga is not an Aboriginal Medical Centre and therefore does not receive Government funding.

With both a lack of financial support and a public health crisis, the clinic has had to make hard choices.

“To give the COVID-19 vaccine, we lose money. There was never a question of would we do vaccines, of course we will — but to our capacity,” said McMahon.

“We’re not vaccinating Gilgandra right now, only from a logistics standpoint. We don’t have a nurse available to be out there full-time right now, and it is a one-doctor practice.

“When it comes to Gulargambone, we have transported some people, particularly those most vulnerable, to Dubbo for vaccinations.”

The medical service has great concerns for smaller towns like Gulargambone — which has a population of just 500 people with 32 per cent being Indigenous.

“Around 70 per cent of our patients in Gulargambone have chronic disease,” said McMahon.

Bawrunga has established telehealth and videoconferencing for their Gulargambone clinic with patients only going into the clinic if necessary. They’ve also stopped staff travelling from Dubbo into the community. 

Whilst NSW Health established a Pfizer pop-up vaccination clinic in Walgett, McMahon has raised concerns over the delayed support.

“The pop-up vaccination clinics have been really great, but it is a double-edged sword. Where were the vaccines when we needed them?” McMahon said.

“Those little communities are very remote. Where is the support for them?”

Operating Aboriginal Medical Centres across NSW, the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) is working to increase vaccination capacity to communities that are most in need.

With the vast majority of cases in NSW being people under 40, NACCHO medical advisor Dr Jason Agostino said it’s important for everyone to get vaccinated as soon as they can.

“The vaccine is now available for all [Indigenous] people 12-years and over. The best strategy is to be vaccinating all ages right now … younger people are getting the virus and spreading it,” he said.

“All of us will be exposed to COVID-19 at some stage, you want to be covered by the vaccine when that happens.”

Like Bawrunga, services across western NSW will still be delivering care to all, including those with chronic illnesses.

“It’s really important to keep managing those chronic conditions … Now is the time to be using telehealth,” he said.

“We are able to figure out how to get medication out safely. We don’t want people who are stopping their medication because they’ve run out and are too scared to go to clinic.”

Dr Agostino advises anyone concerned to get in touch with their local clinic for support and appropriate medical advice.

By Rachael Knowles