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COVID-19 crisis deepens in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities

Despite repeated calls from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities for help to combat the COVID crisis, the situation appears to be worsening.

Ten days ago Croakey reported on the urgent requests to government from organisations working in the Northern Territory, including: Aboriginal Peak Organisations NT, the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress, Central Land Council, Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory (AMSANT), Lhere Artepe and the Australian Council of Social Service.

Yesterday AMSANT issued another desperate call for support and the OzSage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people working group provided an update on the growing threat that COVID-19 is posing to Indigenous communities.

Despite these ongoing calls for assistance and clear evidence of a worsening crisis, there has been as yet no formal response from either the Northern Territory or Commonwealth governments.

Croakey editor Jennifer Doggett reports on these developments below.


Jennifer Doggett writes:

In a statement released yesterday, AMSANT CEO John Paterson expressed concern at the description of the NT COVID-19 outbreak as “under control”, despite rising case numbers (another 1,092 cases were reported this morning).

https://coronavirus.nt.gov.au/current-status#covid-19-data

Paterson cited a range of evidence that the situation was becoming more serious, including the following:

  1. Hospitalisations are now higher than the peak Doherty Institute said we could safely cope with.
  2. All elective surgery has been cancelled and hospitals are relying on overtime and double shifts with more staff away with COVID at the same time as they are full of COVID patients.
  3. The NT has the highest per capita rate of hospitalisations in the country – our current rate is the equivalent of double the NSW peak.
  4. There are still too many people who have not had their boosters.
  5. About 10 government clinics in Central Australia remain with reduced or only visiting services.
  6. Specialist outreach services remain cancelled.
  7. There has been a significant shortage of RATS which has slowed testing in many communities. This is now improving.
  8. People can’t self-isolate due to overcrowding.
  9. Workforce burnout and disruption of non-COVID primary health care is a threat to the current outbreak response and recovery.

Paterson stated that “the single most important additional measure” needed to protect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in the current situation is to ensure positive people are provided a safe place to isolate where they can be fed and supported when this cannot be achieved in their homes.

He said:

We once again call on the government to immediately establish group isolation facilities that could be supportive places for many positive people who then don’t have to infect their households.

We are going to need these places for the next 12 months or more and isolated hotel rooms are not acceptable. People need to be able to mix and move while infected inside a supportive facility. This has not been possible in Central Australia at all.”

AMSANT has recommended that group isolation facilities are established in all regional centres to remove transport barriers for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in rural and remote areas.

OzSAGE update

The need for housing infrastructure to allow for isolation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with COVID was also raised by OzSAGE, a multi-disciplinary network of Australian experts from a broad range of sectors relevant to the well-being of the Australian population during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

At a webinar yesterday, Ebony Lewis, a researcher from UNSW, gave an update from the OzSAGE COVID-19 in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people working group.

This update included the following information:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have lower vaccination rates than non-Indigenous Australians. Over 80% of eligible Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have received their first vaccine but only 74% have received a second dose. This is 15% lower than the general population.
  • In some regions there are significantly lower double vaccination rates (less than 60%) which puts Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in these areas have at increased risk.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are twice as likely as non-Indigenous people to need admission to ICU when contracting COVID-19.

Lewis highlighted the urgency of the situation, stating that there have been more deaths among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from COVID in the past five weeks than throughout the entire course of the pandemic.

She outlined the recommendations of the working group to address this growing crisis, including:

  • Increasing vaccination rates aiming for a double vaccination rate of 90% of eligible Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in order to protect communities.
  • Support to address shortages of equipment (PPE and RATS) and workforce (many services are operating with severe staff shortages)
  • Government support for improved housing infrastructure so people can isolate safety
  • Greater collaboration with communities on the above measures.

Lewis also raised concerns that official figures may significantly under-represent the spread of COVID-19 among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as half of all cases being reported do not include information about the Indigenous status of the person.

The OzSAGE working group has recommended that an Indigenous identification question be required for all reporting across the health system, including on pathology forms, to ensure that accurate information about the numbers of infections among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is collected.


See here for previous COVID coverage via Croakey’s regular COVID Wrap