Delivery mistakes, staffing issues highlighted in Indigenous vaccine rollout

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The first Walgett COVID-19 vaccination clinic had to be cancelled when Pfizer doses were sent to the wrong location two weeks before an outbreak started in the western NSW town and spread to other parts of remote NSW.

A Senate COVID-19 committee heard on Thursday vaccination rates among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people remained up to 26 percentage points behind the national average but had accelerated over the past month after the Commonwealth increased the focus on those communities.

Vaccines were sent to the wrong Walgett clinic, forcing the first Pfizer clinic to be cancelled two weeks before the outbreak.Credit:Kate Geraghty

In August, eight local government areas were put into lockdown after COVID-19 cases were detected in Walgett and Dubbo. Within a week, 116 cases had been found in the region. Three Indigenous people in western NSW have died from COVID since the outbreak began.

Amanda Kelly, from Rural and Remote Medical Services, told the committee hearing the Walgett clinic had booked in 60 patients for vaccines but was forced to cancel the appointments after the doses were sent to a different clinic in the town.

“We were forced into cancelling our very first Pfizer clinic. Now this occurred two weeks before the outbreak,” she said. “If we’d been able to potentially start that clinic, we would have had some vaccines in some form before an outbreak happened.”

Workforce had also been an issue, Ms Kelly said, with a lack of nurses on the ground to administer vaccines. And she said there was very little communication or advertising around the vaccine rollout, which had potentially contributed to vaccine hesitancy in western NSW.

“There was a time there where we had asked to take some of our vaccines into some of the more remote communities … and do a pop-up clinic, and we were told that we were not allowed to take our vaccines there,” Ms Kelly said. “And then, within two days, there was somebody else … another medical clinic who was out doing the pop-up clinics.”

Operation COVID Shield head Lieutenant-General John Frewen told the committee that across the country, 57.5 per cent of eligible Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had had their first dose, and 42.3 per cent were now fully vaccinated.

For all over-16s nationally, 83.6 per cent have had one dose and 65.4 per cent are fully vaccinated. General Frewen said there is currently a 26.1 per cent first dose gap and 23.1 per cent second dose gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

“It is a wide gap, it’s a primary concern. What I would say … is that the first-goes vaccination rates for Indigenous peoples have exceeded the national averages for the last three days. That’s the first time that we’ve experienced that. So we are starting to see a closing of the gap,” he said.

General Frewen said vaccinations in Ingenious communities were continuing to accelerate.

“Of the almost 543,000 doses administered to Indigenous Australians today, one-third of those have been in the last 30 days – that is almost 190,000 doses,” he said.

Labor’s finance spokeswoman, Katy Gallagher, who chairs the committee, asked why more was not done sooner to accelerate vaccines in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

The Department of Health’s Dr Lucas De Toca said the initial plan was to use AstraZeneca across First Nations communities, but after health advice changed there was a delay while supplies of Pfizer were eventually able to be rolled out.

But Health Minister Greg Hunt said the low vaccination rate was about hesitancy, not access.

“In parts of Western Sydney, where there are very, very high rates of vaccination, and there’s been extremely good access, you still have a differential,” he told reporters on Thursday morning.

Lesley Nelson, chief executive of South West Aboriginal Medical Service, said Aboriginal medical services were stretched thin and there was “huge pressure” on the one organisation.

“We have 7000 Aboriginal people in our footprint. And we have one Aboriginal community-controlled health service,” she said.

Ms Nelson said there had been “very nice messages” from the Commonwealth and state government around culturally safe vaccine communications, but distributing those messages was “very challenging”.

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