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(AUSTRALIA) W.A Indigenous Community Report: A plan to move elders to outstations is one of many strategies being explored in a bid to protect a community close to the N.T. border from #COVID19 #AceHealthDesk report

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#CoronavirusNewsDesk says protecting the Indigenous Peoples of the WA border community of Balgo braces for #COVID19 with plan to protect vulnerable residents” Lockdown dilemma looms for outback WASome regional areas with low vaccination rates face the looming dilemma of whether to stay in lockdown after WA borders reopen.

Kindness & Love❤️ says protect indigenous people against #COVID19 of the W.A.Border Community who face lockdown after borders reopen ……

An aerial picture of Balgo, WA.
Community leaders in Balgo and government agencies have spent months fine-tuning a COVID outbreak plan.(ABC Kimberley: Andrew Seabourne)

A plan to move elders to outstations is one of many strategies being explored in a bid to protect a Western Australian Indigenous community close to the Northern Territory border from COVID-19.

Balgo’s population sits at about 400 people but it also acts as a hub for the communities scattered in and around the Tanami Desert.

Its nearest town is Halls Creek more than 300 kilometres to the north.

But it’s Balgo’s proximity to the WA-NT border that has many authorities fearing it could be among the first places to suffer a COVID-19 outbreak should the virus spill over from the Northern Territory into Western Australia.

Police are patrolling the Tanami Road for anyone trying to enter the community which is closed to visitors, but Wirrimanu Aboriginal Corporation chair Chris Mandigalli says residents are on edge.

“[It’s a] bit scary. A lot of people might just run away from the Territory. There’s a lot of back roads they can come through,” he said.

Chris Mandigalli stands in front of racks of bread in a supermarket.
Chris Mandigalli says residents are worried the NT’s COVID outbreak could spread into Balgo.(Supplied: Wirrimanu Aboriginal Corporation)

For many months agencies including Wirrimanu, local police and health bodies have been fine-tuning a pandemic plan to guide their response to a potential outbreak.

One of the key priorities is to protect the town’s elderly residents, who hold important cultural knowledge in a region rich with Indigenous heritage.

Wirrimanu chief executive Gary Kairn said outstations near Balgo had been prepared to host vulnerable residents who wanted to isolate away from residential areas.

“We’ve got some that are quite close, where there’s multiple houses in an area and they’re all serviced with their own water and power,” he said.

“You can turn on the generator when you’re out there. The water then comes on with the pump.

“Like a mini-farming community.”

Plan to divide town into zones

This year’s COVID outbreak in New South Wales wreaked havoc in some Indigenous communities where overcrowded housing remains a persistent issue.

A close up of the corrugations of the Tanami Road.
Police have been patrolling the Tanami Road to help protect vulnerable desert communities from a potential outbreak.(ABC Kimberley: Matt Bamford)

It’s also one of the chief concerns for authorities in Balgo, which have decided to split the community into three zones in the event of an outbreak to slow the spread.

“From there we can organise food drops down to those areas on a house-by-house basis,” Mr Kairn said.

“We’ll have to be isolated in our three distinct areas of town. It may well be that COVID is in all parts of the town.”

‘Clinic mob’ works to boost vaccine rate

Health workers and community leaders have been desperately trying to boost the vaccination rate in Balgo — about 50 per cent of those eligible for a vaccine have had two doses. 

While the Pfizer jab has been readily available for months, a range of factors including a belief in online misinformation and distrust of western healthcare has meant rates in remote communities throughout the Kimberley and Pilbara have trailed the rest of the country.

Mr Kairn said community organisations including Balgo’s store had found inventive ways to encourage people to get the jab.

“You get a $50 shopping voucher for anyone who’s doubled vaxxed,” he said.

“It’s just been effective. It sounds like you’re buying a vax, but it’s not. It’s just about creating awareness for people to roll up their sleeve.”

Mr Mandigalli said a recent sports carnival was used to create awareness about the benefits of the vaccine.

“Clinic mob was driving around with the clinic car giving out vaccines every day, and it turned out really good,” he said.

Play Video. Duration: 1 minute 44 seconds
COVID cases surging across several European countries

Katherine’s Aboriginal leaders fear impact of #COVID19 in overcrowded homes

3m 6s

Lisa Mumbin stands in front of the camera in a blue shirt at Nitmiluk.
Wurli Wurlinjang chairwoman Lisa Mumbin is worried about the spread of COVID in overcrowded homes.(ABC News: Felicity James)

Katherine community members are gravely concerned about the town’s growing cluster of COVID-19 cases and the risk to vulnerable people living in chronically overcrowded housing.

The town is entering its second full day of lockdown after nine new cases were recorded yesterday. There are now 11 cases in the Katherine and Robinson River community cluster.

NT health authorities are racing to track the spread of the outbreak and determine whether the cluster is linked to cases that triggered restrictions in Darwin and Katherine a fortnight ago.

The town’s main Aboriginal health clinic, Wurli Wurlinjang Aboriginal Health Service, is closed for deep cleaning this morning after being listed as an exposure site.

Katherine Hospital is also a close contact exposure site but remains operating.

Wurli Wurlinjang chairwoman Lisa Mumbin said she was worried for local people and families already grappling with poor housing and underlying health issues stemming from poverty.

“We share a lot of things, we still live in overcrowded houses,” she said.

“All this is a strong risk to a lot of our people.

“It’s very scary now to hear that these families that have been affected by COVID … it’s a real risk to a lot of our people in the community.”

At lunchtime yesterday authorities said contact tracers were trying to reach more than 160 people identified from a growing list of exposure sites around the town, including students at the MacFarlane Primary School.LIVE UPDATES: Read our blog for the latest news on the COVID-19 pandemic

An up-to-date list of all current NT public exposure sites can be found on the NT government’s coronavirus website.

And the results of 20 “priority tests” conducted in Robinson River, the small community where one of the two cases recorded on Monday tested positive, are expected this morning.

NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner speaking at a press conference at Parliament House.
NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner announced nine new cases of COVID in the Territory on Tuesday, all in Katherine.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner said at a press conference on Tuesday that COVID-19 could spread particularly fast within overcrowded homes, as had happened in Katherine, making them a major risk for transmission of the virus.

“We know that Delta has a close to 100 per cent infection rate within a household, so it does concern us if it gets into … any household, but particularly into an overcrowded household,” he said.

“That’s obviously a lot of people that will then be positive, and then there’ll be a lot of contact tracing efforts off the back of that.”

A map of the Northern Territory showing major towns.
The Northern Territory’s COVID-19 outbreak grew between Robinson River and Katherine.

John Paterson, the head of the NT’s Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance (AMSANT), said the organisation had been calling for action to address overcrowding in Aboriginal communities throughout the pandemic.

The homelessness rate in Katherine is twice the NT average and 31 times the national rate, according to government statistics.

“We’ve been advocating and lobbying for more housing and accommodation in these remote and regional larger communities throughout the Northern Territory,” Mr Paterson said.

“And it’s a big ask, it is a big ask for people now to go and self-isolate when they’re in accommodation with up to 20, 30 family members.”

He said the government should be looking at providing emergency accommodation for people needing to isolate away from other family members.

He also joined Labor senator Malarndirri McCarthy — who yesterday said the new cases recorded were all relatives of hers’ — in urging people to get vaccinated.

Katherine’s overall vaccination rate is 75 per cent double dose and 87 per cent single dose but there are concerns about pockets of low uptake and low rates in nearby communities.

AMSANT chief executive officer John Paterson in Darwin.
AMSANT chief executive John Paterson says self-isolation is not practical for people living in overcrowded accommodation.(ABC News: Mitch Woolnough)

At the Katherine Doorways Hub homelessness service, senior case manager Dean Jones said no extra accommodation was made available during the snap lockdown at the start of the month.

Instead, his team handed food packages out to people sleeping rough in town and on the banks of the Katherine River.

He said stopping the spread of COVID-19 in a town with one of the highest rates of homelessness and overcrowding in the nation would be difficult.

“People have got so many other health issues that they don’t even realise that they may be experiencing COVID symptoms,” he said.

“I do have worries.”

Mr Gunner has said the NT government has capacity to provide temporary housing and other accommodation, such as caravans, if necessary.

Play Video. Duration: 3 minutes 6 seconds
WA’s COVID-19 reopening roadmap

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