Introduction by Croakey: New South Wales yesterday lifted many of its COVID-19 restrictions, to emerge from 106 days in lockdown and become the first jurisdiction in Australia to be officially ‘living with COVID’.
To the horror of many in public health, Premier Dominic Perrottet and Federal Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese both marked the occasion by staging a media event in a pub and drinking beer for the cameras. (See Twitter threads from Croakey’s Dr Melissa Sweet and former Australasian College for Emergency Medicine president Dr Simon Judkins).
Meanwhile, there are widespread calls for a pause on lifting restrictions until at least 95 percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are vaccinated.
Dr Kalinda Griffiths is a Yawuru woman and epidemiologist at the Centre for Big Data Research in Health at the University of New South Wales, and a member of the OzSAGE working group, a multi-disciplinary network formed in August to offer independent expert advice on the pandemic.
Her address yesterday to the group’s national press conference is republished with permission below.
Like other health leaders, including the Australian Medical Association (AMA), Griffiths is calling for maximum effort by all service providers to increase vaccination levels among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to at least 95 percent and for much better data on vaccination rates.
Kalinda Griffiths writes:
Before we begin today, I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the many lands of which we are meeting. I am coming to you from Larrakia Country in Darwin, upon which lands sovereignty was never ceded, and pay my respects to all elders those of the past, present and the future.
My name is Dr Kalinda Griffiths and I am epidemiologist at the Centre for Big Data Research in Health at the University of New South Wales. I am a Yawuru woman, my family name is Corpus, and my county is in Broome in Western Australia.
As the COVID pandemic continues in Australia, we need to make sure that no one is left behind.
To do this, it is the recommendation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander OzSAGE working group that 95 to 100 percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over the age of 12 years need to be fully vaccinated before states and territories opens up.
This has not been achieved in NSW to date and therefore the relaxation of restrictions now poses real risks for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Aboriginal health leaders from other states and territories are advocating for high rates of vaccinations, with John Paterson from the Aboriginal Medical Service Northern Territory recommending 95 percent vaccination rates and the National Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) CEO Pat Turner recommending 100 percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be vaccinated.
This is to ensure our survivorship. To ensure that we are not left behind.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have experienced an incidence rate that is almost twice that of non-Indigenous people throughout the Delta outbreak: 430 versus 250 per 100,000 people.
I think it goes without saying, that there is an urgency to get Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people vaccinated.
We also have a younger age distribution with higher rates of underlying conditions that can impact disease severity caused by COVID. As of 8 October, there had been 450 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cases hospitalised with around 50 people admitted to ICU. Nine people have died, all in NSW.
Early analyses also suggest that the proportion of deaths in younger people aged 40 to 59 years is about three times higher than that of the non-Indigenous population.
There have been over 4,200 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander COVID-19 cases. In the latest outbreaks there have been over 100 cases in the ACT and Victoria and more of 3,800 cases in NSW.
COVID is a disease of the unvaccinated, so if it gets into regions and communities with lower vaccination rates, it will spread very fast.
We have witnessed some of the impact that can occur and know there will be devastating consequences if this disease continues to spread, particularly through regional and remote Australia.
With already stretched health care services and limited workforce availability to manage COVID patients in those regions, it is anticipated that things can, and will, get much worse if not managed appropriately.
We have the capability, as a nation, to work together to ensure the safety and security of all our citizens. But there is still much work that needs to be done to better support the vaccination of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia.
Currently, 53 percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over the age of 12 years have received at least one dose: 36 percent are fully vaccinated.
Importantly the ACT has passed 80 percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people receiving at least one dose and NSW and Victoria have both passed 70 percent of at least one dose.
The good news is that thanks to the extensive efforts of the Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations and efforts from both the Commonwealth and state governments, the pace of the vaccine roll out for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the ACT, NSW and Victoria has been moving quite quickly.
The pace of vaccine uptake in other jurisdictions is still much slower, with some Aboriginal communities in remote Australia being reported as low as five percent fully vaccinated.
The fact is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to be vaccinated at a rate that is almost 20 percent lower than that of the general population.
With the lower vaccination rates and greater impact from COVID, it is therefore very important that attention, resources and innovative approaches are applied to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities.
Particularly to those services already doing the hard yards. This is a time for governments to be listening to medical experts, Aboriginal Medical Services, communities and those people working on the ground to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have the things that they need to protect themselves and each other.
In order to assess the needs of different communities and different regions, there is a requirement for information on service availability and impact.
Data is crucial
Despite the recommendations and ongoing call for accurate and appropriate data, there is still a clear need to improve the transparency, quality, as well as the availability of disaggregated data. That is, data that is broken down and displayed by population group and regions. These data are important because it lets us know who needs what, where.
There are still many people in the general population who are not vaccinated and an even higher proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people unvaccinated means this matter is urgent.
We recommend that a publication of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander vaccination rates is presented by state and territory Local Government Areas.
We recommend that there be maximum effort by all service providers to increase vaccination levels to at least 95 percent.
And we also encourage all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to get vaccinated, making sure that any concerns are discussed those people who know what they are talking about, so an Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Service or health provider.
As NSW moves towards more relaxed restrictions and other jurisdictions work towards easing restrictions, everyone needs to know that there are people being left behind. There is a responsibility of governments and individuals to support and protect those priority populations that need additional assistance to ensure equity within this nation.
We want to make sure that no one is left behind.
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