By OSCAR PERRI
If the Covid vaccination rate continues at its current rate, it will take until March next year to fully vaccinate the Central Australian Aboriginal population.
This is the view of John Boffa, the head doctor of the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress in Alice Springs, also servicing The Centre’s remote areas.
He says if the pandemic wasn’t suppressed and managed to get out of control, it would be devastating: “We’ve worked out that, conservatively, 5% of the Aboriginal population would die.
“That’s about 800 or 900 hundred people in Central Australia, unvaccinated of course, that would die if COVID got out.”
Currently the number has just ticked over 20% having had their first dose.
Dr Boffa said the issue is not with the supply of the vaccine, but rather significant vaccine hesitancy.
“We don’t want people to think they can wait until there is an outbreak to get vaccinated,” he says.
“That’s dangerous for two reasons: we won’t have enough vaccine to do everyone quickly at that point.
“And secondly, you’re actually leaving home in the midst of an outbreak, which puts you at risk.”
During the Tanami outbreak (at The Granites goldmine) early this year Congress had their biggest vaccine interest, which has now settled to around 50 doses per day, still higher than it was prior to the outbreak.
This more serious approach to COVID would help shake some people out of their complacency and improve the vaccine rollout, says Dr Boffa.
“If you start laying out what happens when it comes, when COVID gets here, people might start taking it really seriously.
“They’ll get a glimpse of what it will be like when COVID hits here. And that might motivate them to get to get the vaccine.”
Contrary to claims by NT Health Minister Natasha Fyles, the Northern Territory is slipping behind other States and Territories in the vaccination race, as interstate vaccine supply continues to rise and more people become eligible.
She claims more than 51% of Territorians have now received their first dose and 32% have received their second dose and are fully vaccinated.
“The remote rollout is tracking well with 42% of remote Territorians who have received their first dose and 25% now fully vaccinated,” says Minister Fyles.
But in the last week, the percentage of Darwin’s population over 15 who have received at least one dose grew by 2.9%, while the increase in the rest of the Territory was 1.3%, according to Federal health statistics.
According to the same data, comparatively in NSW, where a lot of the vaccines administered are AstraZeneca, none of the 28 regions listed have had less than a 2.7% increase, with 11 regions seeing a jump of over 5% more of the population with at least one jab.
Experts are calling for the introduction of incentives.
All Territorians over the age of 16 have been eligible to receive a vaccine since June 7, in order to protect the many vulnerable members of the community, and Pfizer is widely available.
“The number of people saying they’re definitely not going to have it is quite low, which is encouraging, but there’s this bigger group that are hesitant,” says Dr Boffa.
“Around the country, some of those people are waiting for Pfizer, but that’s not an issue here. Everyone’s got access to it.”
Dr Boffa says it seems people are waiting until the risk is getting higher.
“That’s dangerous, because there’s no way of knowing when that’s going to happen,” says Dr Boffa.
“We can easily double the amount of vaccines we are doing, and if there was the demand we could put more staff on and get bigger again, but the demand just isn’t there.”
Blair McFarland, who drove the introduction of Opal petrol, a low-aromatic fuel that doesn’t contain the properties that create a high when sniffed – one of the most successful public health programs implemented in the region – says Central Australians need to start preparing for when COVID comes, not if.
The speed of spread seen in the Delta variant, and pressure on governments to open up the economy makes it increasingly important for local organisations to have a plan ready to respond to a case in the area, says the Alice Springs Mayoral candidate.
Alice Springs Town Council, Congress, and Tangentyere Council need to be ready for action.
“It’s clear that timing is of the essence. And if we wait a week, while we will ring each other up and work out what to do, who’s here, who’s away on holidays, then a week could be too much, and the strategy of moving people out bush would just become a strategy of infecting those communities.
“We have to prioritise working out this response before it becomes an emergency, not during the emergency … making sure it’s all ready to go at the press of a button.
“Last March, it was basically Congress and Tangentyere who realised what was going on and took all the necessary actions,” says Mr McFarland.
“We got support from the NT Government, but they couldn’t move as quickly as we could to actually do it, and they said that themselves afterwards.”
On the vaccine rollout, Dr Boffa says there are no supply issues in the Territory, with resources available to “easily” double the number of doses they are currently delivering each day.
As of Monday, Congress have administered 3831 doses, 3325 doses in town. A total of 929 of these have been AstraZeneca, which Dr Boffa says were mostly administered early on in the rollout, with essentially all of the vaccines administered by Congress now being the Pfizer brand.
As has been seen around the country, a local outbreak is the most effective boost to vaccination numbers.
Congress have been running programs to correct misinformation around the dangers of the vaccine, and address the more “absurd” myths about microchips and toxic chemicals in the vaccines. They also promote the benefits of a vaccinated society.
He says “educationally disadvantaged people” are the most vulnerable to misinformation, which is primarily spread through social media.
Dr Boffa says Congress, as well as all levels of government, need to put more effort into communicating with the public about the benefits of the vaccine, but the current effort is not having enough impact, and so he is calling for incentives to be introduced.
Last month Central Land Council introduced a $500 payment to those who had received both doses. This saw the vaccination rate of the 200 staff rise from 2% to 50% in five weeks.
Dr Boffa says that while this result looks good, Congress have seen a large increase of vaccinated staff during this time as well, without an incentive program.
His staff have put together a report looking at the best measures to incentivise vaccinations, based on studies done around the world, which found that non-financial incentives were more effective.
He wants the Federal government to decide a date when everyone has had enough of an opportunity to get vaccinated, and set it as the deadline for the introduction of a vaccine passport.
“People want to travel, they want to see family, they want to go interstate. Within Australia, a vaccine passport seems to me to be a no brainer.
“Another one is being able to quarantine at home with electronic monitoring if you’re fully vaccinated.
“This is where the contradiction in politics comes in. Liberalism is meant to promote and reward individual responsibility, but you’ve got elements of the Liberal government that are the most opposed to a system which rewards those people taking responsibility and getting vaccinated, protecting themselves, protecting their family, protecting the whole community,” says Dr Boffa.
“It just shows they’re not actually liberals, they’re conservative extremists.”
Meghan Wright is an aged care researcher in a Health Law and Ageing research unit for a Victorian aged care advocacy organisation.
Based on problems the sector has had since making the vaccine mandatory for aged care workers, she supports a more positive reinforcement based incentive program.
As well as issues with supply, she says aged care workers have not responded well to a “perceived punishment” by the government, and points to recent mass protests against vaccine passports in France as to how this would look on a bigger scale in Australia.
“If you do anything that could be seen to breach human rights, in terms of blocking people who don’t get it, that also increases the risk of having a super spreader event.
“There were 240,000 people that protested [in France] last weekend, we have to be avoiding that with our current vaccination numbers.
“A lot of those people aren’t anti-vaxxers, they’re anti-authority, they just don’t like being told what to do.
“By incentivising positively instead, you will avoid that response, I doubt we would see anyone marching in the street saying ‘no don’t give us 300 bucks’.”
Mr McFarland is also advocating for a program to incentivise people to get vaccinated, suggesting three days of paid leave, or vouchers for the supermarket for those who get the jab.
Independent Australian COVID data tracking website COVID Live, data analyst Anthony Macali, collects vaccination, case, and other numbers from government releases.
According to COVID Live, based on the current seven day average of second doses administered, the NT won’t reach the 70% mark until November 26.
While the NT Health Department’s daily case and vaccinations update is a good resource, Mr Macali says there is room for improvement in reporting of vaccine numbers with a regional breakdown.
The Federal Health Department, which holds most of vaccine data, has just started releasing regional numbers, though currently the Northern Territory’s has only two survey regions: Darwin, and everywhere else.
“That will play a big part in trying to perhaps engage in certain parts of the community or state where vaccination rates are low,” says Mr Macali.
“It just drives the conversation in the right direction about why vaccination rates aren’t quite as high as they should be in certain areas.”
Until the vaccine rate gets up to the 70% to 80% mark though, Central Australia has to be ready for an outbreak.
Dr Boffa says he is pleased with the way the Tanami outbreak was dealt with, and expects a similar snap lockdown to be used when another case makes its way to Alice Springs.
“We don’t have the contact tracing capacity of the big cities and we don’t have the QR code usage still.
“What was become really clear is that the Territory is prepared to go hard and go early.”
The first case being a health professional in the hospital would be a big problem and it could happen.
“Our capacity to contact [and isolate] 100 hospital staff and keep the hospital going, that’s a real challenge.”
In remote communities, Central Desert Regional Council (CDRC) CEO Diane Hood says they have a plan ready to go for their services in case of an outbreak, but emergency response falls on NT Government departments, especially Health and Police, who would fly a response team into affected communities.
All CDRC facilities would close to the public and get deep cleaned and reduce staff numbers working in the public, while only essential services would continue: waste management, aged care meals and essential home care delivery, safety services like fire and water checks and airstrip services, and Alice Springs based headquarter roles to manage staff and logistics.
Ms Hood says she is confident that there would be an effective emergency response to an outbreak in remote communities.
“There’s been an enormous effort to put plans in place across a number of disciplines, such as how to feed people, maintain health, transport, all that kind of thing.
“I’m as confident as you can be with these things.”
The News has put the following question to the police today:
If an outbreak occurs in a place such as Yuendumu, what are the step-by-step measures that will be taken by the police to contain the outbreak and to ensure vital goods and services – especially health care – are continuing to be available to the population.
And to the Minister of Health, also today:
You say more than 51% of Territorians have now received their first dose and 32% have received their second dose and are fully vaccinated.
The remote rollout is tracking well with 42% of remote Territorians who have received their first dose and 25% now fully vaccinated.
What are the corresponding figures for Central Australia?
Last week we sent a series of questions to the Department of Health. We received a very basic response that did not answer most of our questions. Neither was a request for an interview granted.
It said that regional data is “hard to validate at this time”. What does this mean?
Has the government lost track of its vaccine numbers?
What are the current total vaccination numbers for this region and Alice Springs separately, first / second doses?
How many people were vaccinated in the region in the last week and in the last month?
When was the best week and month for vaccination numbers?
Where are vaccines available in Alice Springs and regional CA?
Is the website https://covidlive.com.au/ a trustworthy source for NT COVID data?
When is Central Australia expected to be fully vaccinated at 70% to meet the goal outlined last week by the Prime Minister?
Is there an issue with interstate travellers being vaccinated in Alice Springs? Is this a practice the department is aware of?
How many people are quarantining at the Todd and Ross facilities, what are their capacities?
What preparations are in place if the region needs to go in lock down? Do these get reviewed, who is involved, what are the plans for supplying essentials to remote communities?
What actions would take place if a case was announced in Alice Springs tomorrow? Or Yuendumu? Papunya? Mutitjulu? Utopia? Santa Teresa?
Do these communities all have their own unique, step by step response plan for an active case?
What is it, e.g. supplies, lockdown, services, education?
How available is testing in these areas?
Last updated 11 August 2021, 8.15am. (Sub-editing.)