Indigenous jab rates spark opening concern

·3-min read

A senior Indigenous health leader has warned of significant concerns about Australia reopening with a massive gap in vaccination rates continuing.

National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation chief executive Pat Turner wants to see 100 per cent vaccination coverage to protect Indigenous people.

"As the country opens up we have significant concerns for our people across the country," she told a Senate hearing on Thursday.

Just 57.5 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 16 and above have received at least one vaccine dose almost eight months into the rollout.

The figure exceeds 83 per cent among the broader over-16 population.

Only 42.3 per cent of Indigenous people have received both doses compared with 64.4 per cent of the general population.

A nation reopening plan has agreed to over-16 general population vaccine coverage targets of 70 and 80 per cent.

Ms Turner said high coverage was needed across all Indigenous age groups to limit the spread of the disease in coming months.

"While vaccinations are increasing in NSW, Victoria and the ACT, there is still a gap in vaccine coverage, particularly among our younger population," she said.

"That's the majority of our population."

The NACCHO boss revealed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been infected at twice the rate of non-Indigenous Australians during the country's deadly third coronavirus wave.

Up until mid-June, just 153 Indigenous people had contracted the disease with none dying.

But as the Delta variant spread rapidly across NSW, Victoria and the ACT more than 4500 cases led to 10 Indigenous deaths and 500 people being hospitalised.

Most of the deaths have been people aged under 60.

Vaccine rollout co-ordinator John Frewen said Indigenous first-dose vaccination rates exceeded national averages over the past three days.

"That's the first time we've experienced that so we are starting to see a closing of the gap now," he told the committee.

Ms Turner said NACCHO sounded the alarm before Indigenous communities were affected in western NSW - even using Wilcannia as a case study more than a year before the disease hit the town.

"This rapid spread of Delta has been entirely predictable," she said.

She said the organisation warned COVID-19 would be impossible to contain in the town because of overcrowded housing and infrastructure.

"Despite repeated calls for appropriate accommodation, the residents of Wilcannia were left to isolate in tents during the first weeks of the outbreak."

The committee heard of major problems with vaccine delivery in western NSW towns with high Indigenous populations.

Rural and Remote Medical Services' Amanda Kelly said the organisation was forced to cancel its first Pfizer clinic for 60 patients because doses were sent to the wrong place

"This occurred two weeks before the outbreak hit Walgett," she said.

"Had we been able to potentially start that clinic then at least we would have had some vaccines in some arms before that outbreak happened."

Vaccines meant for the service's Lightning Ridge clinic were redirected elsewhere, delaying deliveries by three weeks.

"It's been chaotic," Ms Kelly said.

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