Jeremy Lasek – PHAA
A team of public health experts from five states and territories is currently on the ground in one of the nation’s COVID-19 hot spots, providing surge capacity to help address the growing crisis in the west and far west of NSW.
Headed up on this occasion by the President of the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA), Professor Tarun Weeramanthri, the Australian Medical Assistance Team (AUSMAT) hit the ground running when it arrived in western NSW last week.
This AUSMAT mission is no different to so many in the past, here in Australia and overseas, where expertise is drawn from state and territory health services to deploy at short notice in a crisis situation.
At the height of the Melbourne lockdowns last year AUSMAT teams worked side by side with Victoria Health and the Australian Defence Force to support efforts at aged care facilities which became COVID-19 effected.
On this occasion it was NSW Health who sent out the SOS for urgent AUSMAT assistance.
As Mission Lead, Tarun and his team has deployed across some of the most remote communities in the west and far west of NSW.
Tragically, news broke yesterday of the first death in the region.
An unvaccinated Aboriginal man in his 50s died in Dubbo, and tragically became the first Indigenous person in Australia to die with COVID-19.
That death highlighted a number of underlying issues. At the time of writing, there were 561 active cases of COVID-19 in the NSW western local area health district, 65% of whom are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.
Figures released on Monday showed just 31% of Aboriginal people in Dubbo had received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 9% were fully vaccinated, that’s less than half the first dose rate for the broader population.
Speaking to ABC Radio Rural while working in Wilcannia, Tarun outlined the important yet challenging task faced by his AUSMAT team during their three-week deployment.
Tarun has been able to bring to his leadership role on this assignment his many years of experience managing health responses into some of Australia’s most isolated communities as the Chief Health Officer of the Northern Territory (2004-2007) and Western Australia (2008-2018).
The 18 members of the multidisciplinary AUSMAT team came together quickly last week travelling from WA, SA, NT, Queensland and Victoria, to provide mobile public health and clinical support.
‘The people on the ground here from NSW Health, the Royal Flying Doctor Service, Aboriginal Controlled Medical Services and other health practitioners have been doing a great job delivering vaccine into the state’s west and far west,’ Tarun said.
‘But there’s also an urgent need to get the vaccine to people who might not otherwise come into clinics.’
In remote Wilcannia (population 745 with a 61.2% Indigenous population according to the 2016 Census), Tarun described a typical day for his team as travelling door-to-door in personal protective equipment (PPE) and having conversations with households while offering them potentially life-saving vaccinations.
He emphasised the importance of the AUSMAT team working closely with local organisations such as Maari Ma Health in helping build trust with these strangers from the outside.
‘It’s them who make the connections and talk to the householders and explain who we are,’ Tarun said.
‘Because we turn up in a van and we’re dressed in PPE and say we’re offering vaccinations, the trust of the community is critical. We work alongside the people who normally provide the care in these communities and they’re the most important people in a situation like this. They’re going to be here long after we’re gone, but if we can help for a few weeks that’s great.’
Tarun said he and his team were pleased with their early success in their roles, effectively as door-to-door salespeople, offering this free product that could save a life.
‘We enjoy this kind of work. It’s tough, and it requires a lot of community engagement at a very local level.
‘They’re glad that we go out and have a chat to them. They’re pretty frank, forthright conversations at times, but also very honest and very friendly.
‘The concerns raised here are no different to what you hear in metro settings, and all around the country. The myths and misconceptions travel far and wide across social media, so we’re in a position to explain that they are myths and explain some of the benefits of vaccination.
‘People are generally happy to get vaccinated once they’ve heard the argument, and really it’s such a strong argument.
‘With COVID-19 around there’s such an overwhelming case for vaccination…it’s generally not too hard to get informed consent from the people here.
‘Of course, the people here are scared and feeling vulnerable but they’re also really strong and resilient and resourceful. They’re used to getting by without a huge amount of resources.’
Tarun said the extra vaccine supplies to the region were crucial in trying to protect such a vulnerable population.
‘People do realise we need to do more to get the vaccination rates up in our Indigenous communities as quickly as we are right now for everyone else in Australia,’ he said.
‘There are particular issues here about health care access and understanding what’s being offered and the people here want to talk this through. These people are amongst the hardest to reach, who may not access health services often. But if offered in the right way, they will pick up their vaccinations.
‘We want people to understand vaccines are unbelievably effective. We are lucky to have them and our best protection against COVID-19 is to get vaccinated.
Tarun is full of praise for his highly skilled and experienced team, who he said all came to this role with great experience working in rural and remote Australia. That experience he said had been invaluable on the ground and building trust.
‘We enjoy this kind of work. It’s tough, and it requires a lot of community engagement.
‘We are all Australian and there’s a real appreciation of the strengths and challenges facing the people who live in these areas. I think we just help each other as fellow Australians in times of need and it’s a real honour and pleasure to be able to be here with this team.’
Since the interview broadcast last Thursday, the AUSMAT team has travelled across western NSW visiting many smaller towns and communities. Over the next few weeks, their mission will take them to communities from close to the Queensland and Victorian borders.
Footnote: Over the past decade, the Australian Government has deployed AUSMAT to humanitarian disasters in the following countries:
- Samoan measles outbreak 2019
- Thai cave rescue 2018
- PNG’s Southern Highlands earthquake 2018
- Fiji’s Tropical Cyclone Winston 2016
- Nepal’s earthquake 2015
- Vanuatu’s Tropical Cyclone Pam 2015
- Solomon Islands floods 2014
- Philippines Typhoon Haiyan 2013
- Solomon Islands dengue fever outbreak 2013
Photo credit: ABC Broken Hill: Jonathon Poulson