• The federal government is targeting 30 remote and non-remote First Nations' communities for an immediate COVID vaccination blitz. (NITV The Point)Source: NITV The Point
30 First Nations communities with low immunisation rates are the focus, as Australia moves towards lifting lockdown restrictions.
Karen Michelmore, Lindy Kerin, Sarah Collard

The Point
14 Sep 2021 - 5:20 PM  UPDATED 14 Sep 2021 - 5:24 PM

The head of Australia’s COVID taskforce says he has concerns for First Nations communities, and that there is an "urgency" to improve vaccination rates before the nation's jurisdictions lift lockdown restrictions.

The federal government is embarking on an immediate vaccine blitz to lift vaccination rates, targeting 30 remote and non-remote communities where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander vaccine rates are lagging.

The National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) says restrictions should not be lifted until vaccination rates hit 100 per cent in Indigenous communities.

The National COVID Taskforce Coordinator General, Lieutenant General John Frewen, has also raised concerns.

“The national plan says when we are... at 70 and 80 per cent fully vaccinated, and when the states and territories are at 70 and 80 per cent fully vaccinated, that's when the national plan activates,” Lieutenant General Frewen told NITV’s The Point program.

“I have expressed the concern about not only First Nation communities but other communities where... the rates aren't as high as well.

“It's part of the conversation.

“(But) there's an urgency to this, we can't just think that the nation isn't going to keep rolling on and the economy is going to have to keep opening up.

"So that's why I think it's so important right now to get this done as fast as we can.”

According to NACCHO, just 22 per cent of First Nations people aged 12 and above are fully vaccinated, and 39.3 per cent have received one dose.

Vaccine blitz underway

The vaccine blitz will be carried out by Operation COVID Shield along with state and territory health authorities (except for Tasmania and Victoria), Aboriginal community-controlled health services, and other Indigenous stakeholders.

The long list of targets includes 20 non-remote communities, and 10 in remote areas, stretching from the west Kimberley and Port Hedland in the Pilbara, to Port Lincoln in South Australia, north to Darwin and north-east Arnhem Land and the Barkly, and a number of Queensland communities including Cairns, Normanton and Toowoomba.

In NSW, which has been hit hardest by the virus outbreak, only the Central Coast and Wollongong will be targeted.

“I've turned my full attention now to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, where there is such a pressing concern now around this gap, because we've got these national targets and 70, 80 per cent of fully dosed, for reopening the nation, and I'm really concerned that we might have communities well below those rates when the rest of the nation is starting to open up,” Lieutenant General Frewen said.

Victoria not included 

Victoria isn’t included in the vaccine blitz, even though the government has conceded its initial data showing high vaccination rates were inflated.

Lieutenant General Frewen said even with the data correction, Victoria’s roll out effort had been good.

"The ones that we've got on our list are really where the big disparities are now and where we can get the best (and) biggest advantage, as quickly as possible,” he said.

The Victorian Aboriginal Health Service said it felt it had been overlooked by the federal government.

“It’s almost like they've forgotten about us,” said VAHS Chief Executive Michael Graham.

“Even though we've got over 60,000 Aboriginal people here in Victoria, and half of that population live in Melbourne — We've heard nothing from them.”

VAHS Clinical Director Dr Jenny Hunt said it was obvious the data had been wrong.

“There were more people being vaccinated than there actually are Aboriginal people in Victoria, so I think that that was a pretty early flag that there was a problem,” Dr Hunt said.

She said while vaccination coverage was still strong, it was clear more work was needed to protect the majority of Aboriginal Victorians.

“We have got quite good coverage rates but in north and western areas of Melbourne, where we're seeing outbreaks, they are quite a lot lower.”

Shadow minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney also said urban communities needed greater focus.

“You just wonder why the inner west of Sydney hasn’t made it on to the list, you wonder why haven’t the western suburbs of Sydney, which have the largest Aboriginal community in Australia haven’t made it on to the list.” Ms Burney said.

She said greater transparency was needed.

"I am calling urgently on the federal government to come clean about how the 30 communities were chosen, what the modelling was, what the data is for across the country and most importantly how you got it so wrong in Victoria,” Ms Burney said.

Lieutenant General Frewen said the 30-community vaccine blitz was just the beginning.

“Once we've got those 30 rolling in an accelerated way then we'll be looking more broadly to everywhere else as well,” he said.

The vax gap has grown 

The head of the COVID taskforce Lieutenant General Frewen conceded there had been some setbacks in the roll out in First Nations communities.

“I think once those setbacks got in place, that’s just allowed the gap to sort of grow,” he said.

He said the government was working hard with local communities, leaders and Elders to try and get the message out there that the vaccines are safe and important to protect the community.

“We've just got to get that message out, we've got to get the communities convinced and do everything we can to get the vaccines into people’s arms,” he said.

Lieutenant General John Frewen says the plan would include tailored information for communities.

This could include going door to door in some communities, as Aboriginal medical services are doing in the NSW Far West.

An extra $7.7 million will be provided to the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) for extra vaccine liaison officers to work directly with remote and very remote communities.

First Nations Media Australia will also be funded to produce and distribute information materials about the vaccine rollout, and a communications campaign will combat misinformation within the community.

“We're looking for any opportunity to help convince communities and then to get the vaccinated as quickly as possible,” Lieutenant General Frewen said.

Operation COVID Shield has also promised to release vaccination data on the 30 priority areas each week.

For more on this story, tune into NITV's The Point at 7.30pm, or later on SBS or SBS OnDemand.