As Mildura faces a COVID-19 outbreak, Aboriginal health workers are concerned that Indigenous jabs have fallen behind.

Victoria hit a peak of 2,297 new infections on Wednesday, an Australian-wide high for any time during the pandemic.

In the state’s northwest, on the border of New South Wales, cases are on the rise.

Mildura reported 29 new cases on Friday, and with a total of 159 active cases.

Aboriginal health workers are concerned that Indigenous vaccination rates are lagging badly behind the general population in the township.

According to the Federal Health Department, 90 per cent of the population in the greater Mildura area have had one dose of a vaccine, but the data shows that Indigenous first dose vaccination is lagging at just 67 per cent.

Palawa woman Jacki Turfrey is the CEO of Mildura’s Aboriginal medical service, Mallee District Aboriginal Services (MDAS).

MDAS’ CEO, Jacki Turfrey. Image supplied Mallee District Aboriginal Services.

Turfrey is deeply concerned about the low vaccination rates.

“We have typical conditions with overcrowding in households, so if one person gets it, then it has a very broad impact immediately on a number of other family members,” she said.

“So unlike other household types, where you can isolate nicely in your own home and you’re not really impacting anyone else, that’s not a luxury our community experience.”

According to Turfrey, the greatest infection rate is in children under twelve, closely followed by women aged between 18 and 30.

Children are getting infected, Turfrey said, and passing the virus on to their mothers.

“You see [infections] across the board but predominantly in unvaccinated [people],” she said.

“Our mob are feeling really scared. And you know, they’re scared to come out, they’re scared to catch it, they’re scared to pass it on to someone.”

“One of the worst fears that people would hold is if they get it and give it to one of our Elders and our Elders pass away. The guilt that would come with that is pretty significant.”

Turfrey said strong early uptake of AstraZeneca means there’s good vaccination among the community’s old people but confusing messaging from government made vaccine hesitancy worse among mob.

“In our Elders’ group, when AstraZeneca was first released, we had really good uptake, so the good news for us is that the Elders in our community in Mildura are a very well covered group,” she said.

“But then the AstraZeneca rollout mucked up, and then all the stuff about the deaths and then who should have it and who shouldn’t have, and that just stopped cold for quite a long time.”

Since Pfizer was rolled out, MDAS decided that a ‘herd immunity’ approach would offer the greatest protection to Mildura mob and have been offering vaccinations to the broader community.

MDAS offers walk-in vaccinations to mob, but non-Aboriginal people need to book in to get a jab.

The rollout has ramped up since the virus came to town.

On October 8, MDAS had vaccinated 9,786 people in total, but in the week between October 11 and 15, the service administered another 1,201 jabs.

MDAS has turned to new methods to get jab numbers up among mob and commissioned a ‘Koori Night Patrol Bus,’ taking healthcare out into the community.

The Department of Health have sent us two of their Aboriginal registered nurses who are also authorised officers who are working to support our own immunisation team, and other health clinics staff team to actually get out and go door to door for the purposes of testing,” Turfrey said.

“Obviously, testing is critical for us, we need to know where it is in community and how many communities and is actually affected.

“But also, if the opportunity presents itself and people are asymptomatic, then we’re able to vaccinate as well, as we go.”

Jill Gallagher, CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO) said she’s also concerned about the low vaccination rates, labelling it a “very dangerous situation”.

“These outbreaks across Victoria combined with plans to reopen the state means that there is an extremely urgent need for our community to get vaccinated as soon as possible,” she said.

“In terms of vaccination rates we are seeing some low numbers in pockets of the state. Generally speaking our community’s vaccination rates are still behind the general population of the state. We really have to get those numbers up.

“We’ve seen New South Wales open this week – it won’t be long until Victoria follows. It’s absolutely crucial that we are not left behind again.”

MDAS has also taken food hampers to mob stuck in isolation; to date they’ve handed out 149 of the hampers.

Their message is for mob to take care of each other and get a jab.

“If you’re concerned get tested and isolate. If you’re feeling well enough, vaccinate,” Turfrey said.

By Sarah Smit