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Ken Wyatt in the background, with Greg Hunt in the foreground

Medical dash as COVID spreads among Indigenous people in western NSW

Urgent medical resources are being dispatched to western NSW in a vaccination and support drive after the alarming spread of COVID into Aboriginal communities there.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said the first of five Australian Defence Force vaccination teams will arrive on Wednesday.

An initial Australian Medical Assistance Team (AUSMAT) – which is multidisciplinary health group – will also be sent within a couple of days. AUSMATs can help shore up local hospitals and health services where that might be needed.

COVID has now spread to areas including Bourke, Broken Hill, Brewarrina, Gilgandra, Walgett and Dubbo.

With a large Indigenous population in these areas and a low vaccination rate, COVID presents an especially serious threat. Aboriginal people are vulnerable because they often already have other health conditions.

Most of the about 117 cases in western NSW are among Indigenous people, particularly young people.

The Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, said that nationally 169,000 Indigenous Australians had had their first vaccine (a rate of 30%), and 69,000 (15%) had had two doses.

The rates are much lower than for the general community, where more than a quarter of eligible Australians (26.9%) are now fully vaccinated.

Wyatt said Indigenous leaders were stepping up and “we’re seeing straight talking happening”.

He said some Indigenous people had been fearful of adverse effects of being vaccinated.

“People are now believing that it is time for them to take the proactive action. And the elders and the leaders are ensuring that the straight messages, straight talking is now part of what communities are hearing.”

Dharriwaa Elders Group at Walgett called for more resources and help in a statement last week.

“Many of our Elders and others in Walgett experience health and social issues that make them vulnerable to contracting COVID-19. The impact on our community could be devastating,” they said.

Pat Turner, CEO of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), said the shortage of Pfizer and people’s reluctance to have AstraZeneca had been problems in the rollout in western NSW.

“People put their back up against getting AstraZeneca,” she said. They had also thought they were a long way from Sydney, where the NSW outbreak was centred.

With the spread of the virus people were now realising they needed to be vaccinated, Turner said. But she was still “very concerned” about the situation in western NSW.

She said one of the problems Aboriginal health centres had was a shortage of staff due to state border closures, as well as nurses not coming from New Zealand.

She welcomed the dispatch of the defence and AUSMAT teams and that increased supplies of Pfizer had been prioritised as well as more testing capacity and personal protective equipment.

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