• Wilcannia has been hit hard by the Delta variant with more than 15 percent being infected by the virus. (Getty Images AsiaPac)Source: Getty Images AsiaPac
Australia's peak Indigenous health body warned of Wilcannia's risk to COVID-19 almost a year before the current Delta outbreak hit the town.
Sarah Collard

14 Oct 2021 - 5:46 PM  UPDATED 14 Oct 2021 - 5:46 PM

A senate inquiry into the government's response to the pandemic has heard COVID-19 spreading though Far West and Western New South Wales was 'utterly predictable'.

Wilcannia, which has just suffered a widespread outbreak, was used as an example in July 2020 to highlight the vulnerability of Indigenous communities, almost a year before the town hit the headlines.

Pat Turner, CEO of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations (NACCHO), told the inquiry there was a clear failure by state governments to plan and prevent outbreaks in communities.

She said the peak body had even used the town as a case study to the very inquiry probing the response.

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"When COVID hit the greater Sydney area they should have been putting in place arrangements to deal with the spread of COVID into their regions," Ms Turner told the inquiry.

"But no — everyone waited until COVID hit western New South Wales and then they panicked."

She said the lack of infrastructure and safe accommodation for quarantining had been highlighted, and that state and federal governments should have been better prepared.

It wasn't until several weeks into the outbreak in Wilcannia that the state government sent in motorhomes to relieve overcrowding pressures.

More than 15 percent of the entire town contracted the virus, with hundreds infected.

Ms Turner said 1 in 8 Indigenous Australians live in overcrowded homes, with even worse rates in remote and regional areas.

"Many houses also lack plumbing to support adequate cleaning like laundry, bathrooms and showers, and in this environment the Delta variant has spread rapidly through households."

Thousands of First Nations people infected

She said up until the current outbreak Indigenous people had largely been spared, with just 153 infections being recorded and no deaths.

But in June that quickly changed Ms Turner said the infection rate for First Nations people during the Delta outbreak is now twice that of the general population.

"The Delta strain has rapidly spread through New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT.

"In the past three months, infections have now risen to over 4500 cases, with 500 people hospitalized and ten people dying.

"1 per cent of cases aged between 40 to 49 are dying during the Delta outbreak.

"This is what we feared."

States need to plan for outbreaks

The committee was also told that no jurisdiction has yet given a contingency plan on state and territory response in the event of future outbreaks.

Ms Turner said such planning is vital to reduce the spread of the virus, as states and territories begin opening up after prolonged lockdowns.

"I am concerned that I haven't seen one contingency plan yet from any jurisdiction around Australia...

She also said that of the nation's vaccinated Indigenous population, Aboriginal health organisations were responsible for more than 60 per cent.

"Our sector has done all the heavy lifting... Where have the states been? I am very cross with them.

"It's everyone's responsibility."

Vax rates lagging behind

The inquiry also heard that Indigenous vaccination rates trail the general population by more than 20 percent.

Only 42.3 per cent of First Nations people aged 16 and over are double-dosed, compared to 64.4 per cent of the general population.

Vaccine taskforce head John Frewen told the committee closing the vaccination gap was his 'highest priority'.

"At the moment in first dosing there is a 26.1 per cent gap and 23.1 per cent gap in fully vaccinated rates. It is a wide gap—it's our primary concern," Lt Gen Frewen said.