The Hunter region's Indigenous population is battling a growing outbreak of COVID-19, accounting for 21 per cent of active cases in the district.
The wider Hunter community recorded 82 of the 496 new locally acquired cases in New South Wales overnight.
It comes as the state relaxes many of the restrictions that have been in place during the Delta outbreak.
Worimi man and John Hunter hospital surgeon Dr Kelvin Kong is urging caution as the lockdown lifts.
“The virus hasn't been told it's 'Freedom Day'. The virus is still out there,” he said.
“Remember we're trying to protect our Uncles and Aunties, our fellow friends and mob to make sure they’re not going to be getting severely ill with this virus."
Three out of five Indigenous people who’ve contracted the virus in the region are under the age of 25.
“(It) takes one person in the house (to contract COVID-19), and it's 100 per cent likely that everyone in the house will catch the virus,” Hunter Aboriginal Medical service Awabakal CEO Raylene Gordon said.
“That's concerning for children who are under 12 at the moment who can't be vaccinated.”
‘People aren’t hesitant’
Less than half of the Hunter region’s Indigenous population over the age of 15 are fully vaccinated.
Dr Kong said he challenges the narratives linking low vaccination rates to vaccine hesitancy.
“Within the groups that I'm looking after, people aren't hesitant. It's just purely getting access to the vaccinations.”
“We're seeing a real lag behind in vulnerable and regional communities, and I think that's probably a reflection on the way the policy has been developed and designed.”
Ms Gorden said while there’s been a small amount of vaccine hesitancy in the community, the supply of doses has been a bigger issue.
“If we had been prioritised at the start of the rollout of the vaccine, we could have tried to get ahead of the game quicker,” she said.
“We had a lot of people who were wanting to be vaccinated at that time and the vaccine wasn't available. It certainly is available now.”
Awabakal has now vaccinated 40 per cent of their patient population of 8,000 people.
“Unfortunately, there's a lot more than 8000 Aboriginal people in the Hunter region,” Ms Gordon said.
‘For us, it poses a greater risk’
Dr Kong said the best way to manage the surging cases in the Hunter’s Indigenous communities is to develop a vaccine delivery strategy in collaboration with Aboriginal community-controlled organisations.
“That's going to take innovation and different ways of doing that. It's not about going to a vaccine hub for example.”
“It might be that we need to get more mobile and get down to some of those home visits to make sure people are vaccinated..."
It’s exactly the targeted approach Ms Gordon said Awabakal is taking.
“Now what we're doing is going through our patient list to target particular people who are not vaccinated, and trying to understand if it’s an access issue, is it fear, and work through that individually with families.
Ms Gordon said despite today’s easing of restrictions, Awabakal will be sticking to the strategies and initiatives they have in place until 70 per cent of their patient population is fully vaccinated.
“Although the wider community is opening up and celebrating I think for us, it poses a greater risk.”
“I would say to anybody worried about the vaccination to come and talk to us about why you're worried about it, and we can explain and go through the individual risks with people.”
“So we can talk through the process to get everybody vaccinated.”