As of April 13, NSW has 2,870 confirmed cases of COVID-19. However, the rate of infection is dropping rapidly.

This decrease in infection can be attributed to the strict public health orders the state is enforcing and the education and messaging around the virus which has been sent out to the public.

For mob in NSW, the role of local Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services (ACCHSs) has been crucial.

From the centre of Sydney to remote corners of the state, Aboriginal Medical Services (AMS) have been working tirelessly to ensure the safety, protection and education of their local communities.

In the Central Coast region of northern NSW, sitting in the town of Wyong is the Yerin Eleanor Duncan Aboriginal Health Centre (Yerin).

Being the only ACCHO in the region, the centre runs over 30 programs in community.

Serving around 5,000 people, Yerin AMS has 3,000 active patients.

CEO of Yerin, Belinda Field, said the organisation had to streamline non-essential services into telehealth very quickly to service their large client base.

“We have been able to encourage many of our Elders or anyone over 50 that have a pre-existing health condition to stay home wherever possible. Even if they do have access to private transport, we still ask them to stay home,” Field said.

“A huge part of our culture is socialising together, and we have lots of support groups we run across youth, Elders, women and men, our cancer support groups, and we are [still] doing it now … all by way of phone.”

The service also provides their GPs with iPads, where patients can privately send photographs for conditions that need visual attention, send scripts directly to the pharmacy and provide medication delivery to patients.

Yerin has also been supplying welfare packs in conjunction with other local Aboriginal organisations.

“We’ve put together meat, fruit and veg in partnership with Darkinjung Local Aboriginal Land Council and we have also put some essential items like hand sanitiser and toilet paper in partnership with Barang Regional Alliance.”

Yerin has also worked with Gudjagang Ngara li-dhi Aboriginal Corporation, a local Aboriginal agency working in the early intervention and prevention space, to create education packs and provide photocopying services.

They have implemented a pandemic response team if there is a confirmed case in their community.

“Yerin has been involved with the Central Coast Local Health District (CCLHD), particularly with Nunyara Aboriginal Health Unit, in terms of having a response team ready to go in community in case any of our mob do test positive and we need to get them into quarantine,” Field said.

“We have secured a property through our own means and we are working really closely with Nunyara.

“We have written up the regional pandemic plan and we have shared that with the 10 Aboriginal organisations on the coast. CEOs and Chairs know what the messaging is for community—there [are] different services for different cohorts.”

While establishing these services, Yerin has been working to ensure all patients have access to accurate information and support.

Yerin has made a number of changes to accommodate patients during COVID-19. Photo via Facebook.

“We are managing around 550 chronic disease patients who we are regularly ringing, making sure they are okay. And we’re on social media sending out happy messages, sharing some laughs.”

“You know what blackfullas are like, we will come together and use humour along the way and kick in when we need to be serious.”

Yerin is also establishing a free 1800 phone number for those needing an extra hand.

“We are concerned, on top of COVID-19, about any of our mob experiencing domestic violence. Along with [the] 1800 number, we also sent out information to all of community about how to contact us if you are experiencing [domestic violence].”

Whilst the journey so far has not been easy, Yerin has been able to take it in their stride and hopes other AMS in the state can move through the period similarly.

“I think it is really getting on the phone as Chief Executive and leveraging resources, and talking to your local council, talking to your other non-government agencies in the region and pulling together resources, don’t try to do it alone.

“I know it is tricky in some communities, particularly where there are fractures, but you have to push past it, it is about everybody and we are in this together.”

Acting CEO at Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council (AH&MRC), Phil Naden, commends the work of AMS such as Yerin.

“Local Aboriginal Medical Services, such as Yerin, play a critical role to ensure Aboriginal communities can access medical care and trusted advice that will help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and keep Indigenous communities across NSW safe and healthy,” Naden said.

The peak body for NSW ACCHSs, AH&MRC supports 46 ACCHSs across NSW.

“I would also like to thank all the healthcare workers including doctors, nurses [and] Aboriginal healthcare workers for their continued work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“While many of us stay home and protect ourselves from COVID-19 our healthcare workers do not have this option and go to work to care for people with COVID-19 and provide other healthcare services.”

Naden urges those seeking more information about COVID-19 to visit: ahmrc.org.au/coronavirus.

By Rachael Knowles