An update on the public health vaccination campaign tackling COVID wave in Illawarra

Composite image shows a social media tile from the Vax the Illawarra campaign featuring a thumbs up sign, and a photo of Toby Dawson, campaign volunteer

TOBY DAWSON – Vax the Illawarra Campaign Volunteer

Background: In September we shared stories about the Vax The Illawarra campaign featuring former PHAA Board member, Dr Summer May Finlay, and two men living with long COVID who support the immunisation project. Here’s an update from the NSW region.

The COVID-19 rock that dropped into Sydney’s pond in June is now creating shockwaves just an hour’s drive south in the Illawarra. We hoped our distance and geographic boundaries would keep us safe from the Delta outbreak, and they did for a while, but case numbers here are now growing every day while Sydney’s are falling.

The ability for people to travel with relative freedom across Greater Sydney (and into the Illawarra) has brought COVID-19 into our homes and workplaces. In the past month, nearly 2,000 people in the Illawarra have been infected with COVID-19, and a number of people have died. From a position of relative comfort just a few short weeks ago, now we fear the worst. It seems everyone knows someone who’s had COVID-19 in our community.

Breaking the numbers down by Local Government Areas (LGAs), there are some frightening statistics emerging. In the Illawarra-Shoalhaven area over the past 14 days to 7 October, COVID case numbers were up 72% on the previous fortnight.

By LGAs:

  • Kiama: 13 in last fortnight (-13% change from previous fortnight)
  • Shellharbour: 178 (-3%)
  • Shoalhaven: 109 (+142%)
  • Wollongong: 714 (+107%)


Of particular concern, the high levels of COVID case numbers in the Wollongong LGA also reflect the lowest vaccination rates in this region.


Vaccination rates as at 4 October 2021 2019 ERP population % Vaccinated – Dose 1 % Vaccinated – Dose 2
Kiama – Shellharbour 77,970 92.5% 65.8%
Shoalhaven 87,732 91.8% 65.9%
Wollongong 114,774 85.4% 65.0%

We also have a large Indigenous population in the region, and we don’t want a repeat of what’s happened to First Nations people in western NSW.

The rising case numbers in the Illawarra will have repercussions for the Sydney workforce. Before the pandemic began, more than 23,000 Illawarra residents commuted to Sydney for work, and the shift to working from home that began last year has seen even more Sydneysiders swap the concrete jungle for views of our mountains and oceans. A major outbreak here will also close off options for holiday travel once that becomes possible again for Sydneysiders.

Our response to this threat has been the ‘Vax the Illawarra’ campaign. This non-political grassroots effort was started by a small group of community and business leaders and aims for the region to be the first to have every eligible citizen fully vaccinated.

We have learnt the lessons of outbreaks elsewhere. Now we’re putting into action some of the best practice when it comes to community and public health outreach. We’ve seen some engaging social media videos from Dubbo Regional Council but to our knowledge, no other community in NSW, or Australia, has tackled the pandemic and the urgent need for jabs in arms in this comprehensive, grassroots, community-driven way.

Our website makes it easy for people to find a vaccination site nearby, and we have signed more than 100 trusted and familiar local faces as campaign ambassadors. These ambassadors represent the region’s diverse community groups: First Nations, ethno-specific, LGBTQI+, religious, education, disability and business communities, and are of all ages and genders.

They include Olympian, Emma McKeon, the fastest female swimmer on the planet, and Alexander “The Great” Volkanovski, undisputed UFC featherweight champion, both born and bred in the Illawarra.

The ambassadors are using traditional and social media to engage with our different community groups. Our goal is to resonate with every corner of our diverse population in a way that is refreshing and even fun, providing the region’s residents with a positive message when months of doom and gloom have taken their toll.

So far we still have around 65 per cent of the Illawarra fully vaxxed, which lags the overall state rate of 67 per cent, but is a huge increase from the 50 per cent rate when we started our campaign on August 27. Our vaccination rate is now similar to the rates for the NSW Central Coast, but better than in places like Newcastle.

We hope to make the region safe for residents and visitors through this campaign. The Illawarra’s hospitality, accommodation and small business operators that cater for holidaymakers are all doing their best to get vaccinated.

Sydneysiders, and residents in other areas, have a part to play too.

Our message to our neighbours is plan your trip and book your vaccination. We want you to come and enjoy our region – but only once you’re fully vaccinated.  Let’s not just #VaxtheIllawarra, let’s #VaxSydney and #VaxNSW too.

This article was previously printed in part in the Sydney Morning Herald.

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