I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the many lands of which we are meeting. I am coming to you from Bidjigal Country in Sydney, and pay my respects to all Elders past, present and emerging and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people online today.
My name is Ebony Lewis, I’m an Associate Lecturer and co-lead of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research Theme at the School of Population Health at the University of New South Wales.
This advice has come from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander OzSAGE working group.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Australia, the working group recommends that over 90% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 12 and over are vaccinated, preferably over 95%, before relaxation of restrictions and borders opening up.
Aboriginal health leaders and organisations have also called for higher vaccination coverage of 95% or more for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations for example the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory, The Australian Indigenous Doctors Association, and the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander OzSAGE working group supports this as we need to make sure that no one is left behind in the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia.
There have been more than 5,500 COVID-19 cases among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. As of the 20th October, NSW had 5,156 cases in the recent Delta outbreak, Victoria has 297 and the ACT has 155. Around 600 people have been hospitalised with 65 admitted to the Intensive Care Unit and more than 10 deaths.
Currently, 59% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over the age of 12 years have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose. 45% are fully vaccinated. Importantly in the ACT, over 80% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people 12 years & over have received at least one dose and NSW and Victoria are expected to pass 80% today.
However, importantly, vaccine data reports around 20% lower rates of vaccine coverage in Aboriginal and Torres Strait people compared to the wider population. In the other states and territories, vaccine uptake continues to be lower, particularly in some remote areas which have reported extremely low vaccine coverage.
This a gap we need to be mindful of, as vaccination rates remain lower for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Australia.
Aboriginal people have been identified as a priority population since the start of the vaccine rollout and all people 12 years and over are eligible for vaccination. With easing of restrictions, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people must not be left behind.
COVID-19 is a disease of the unvaccinated, and with lower vaccination coverage, this can have devasting impacts if COVID-19 spreads through communities, particularly those in remote areas with very low vaccination coverage, as we have seen for example recently in Far Western NSW.
The pandemic has put a spotlight on inequities both here in Australia and across the world. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are living with more chronic health conditions and earlier onset of these conditions for example diabetes, renal disease and cancer that increases a person’s risk of getting severely ill if they get COVID-19.
Expert analysis of younger Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, that is those aged 40-59 years, suggests the proportion of deaths in that age group is about three times higher than that of the non-Aboriginal population.
Higher vaccination coverage will help better protect those with chronic conditions, those who are more susceptible to severe illness, and will help better protect the unvaccinated.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population has a relatively younger age structure than the wider population and a greater proportion are living with chronic conditions that can increase severity of illness. In those aged under 12 years, the rate of infection is almost double that of the non-Aboriginal population. Higher vaccination coverage will also help better protect those who are not yet eligible for vaccination.
Access to appropriate health services as well as available and affordable measures such as PPE to protect one’s self from COVID-19 is needed particularly in areas outside the big cities where there are known health service gaps and workforce staff shortages.
High vaccination rates are certainly achievable, and we have the capacity as a nation to do this. But further efforts will be needed to support the vaccination of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
We need to ensure no one is left behind in the COVID-19 pandemic here in Australia.
The working groups continues to recommend
- Over 90% and preferably 95% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 12 and over are vaccinated, to better protect communities and prevent outbreaks prior to states and territories opening up
- That all levels of government listen and continue to work with community leaders, Aboriginal organisations, and those on the ground to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have all the things they need to protect themselves and others in their home and in the community.
- Addressing health service gaps particularly in areas outside of the big cities, addressing workforce staff shortages particularly where services are already stretched.
- That disaggregated data is made available on vaccine rates– that is data that is broken down by population groups and regions as this data is important as it lets us know who needs what, where and when
As NSW move towards relaxing restrictions and other states and territories work towards easing their restrictions, we need to remember that still many people in the population are not vaccinated and an even higher proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people remain unvaccinated. It is a responsibility of governments and individuals to support and protect priority populations such as the Aboriginal population, to ensure equity and that no one is left behind.
Lastly, I would just like to mention that other members from the working group have released an article today in The Conversation just a couple of hours ago – with discussion on vaccination in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. The link will be made available on the OzSAGE website.