Hi my name is Ebony and I am Wiradjuri woman and researcher working in public health at the University of New South Wales. I am coming to you from Bidjigal Country here in Sydney and pay my respects to Elders, past, present and emerging and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here with us today.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were identified as a priority group since the COVID-19 Vaccine roll out commenced earlier in the year. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people must not be left behind when restrictions start to lift in NSW.
There have been 2,550 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic. Since the start of the NSW outbreak in June there have been 2,405 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cases with 739 documented cases in the West and Far West NSW.
The good news is that in some areas of concern which have recently experienced devastating outbreaks such as in the Far West of NSW, vaccine coverage rates are increasing, this has been largely attributable to ramping up the public health response and governments working closely with the Aboriginal Community Controlled Health sector to prioritise efforts to increase vaccination rates in areas of concern. However, nationwide, vaccination data still reports around 20% lower vaccination coverage in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people compared to the National average.
Australia wide as of the 21st September there were 46.6% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 12 years and older who had received at least 1 vaccine dose and 28.3% 12 years and older who are now fully vaccinated.
There are also variations with vaccine coverage across and within our states and territories. In NSW we know that in some Sydney areas, 50% of Aboriginal people have been fully vaccinated. However, other geographical areas, for example the mid-north coast, vaccine coverage is much lower with just over 25% fully vaccinated. The good news is that NSW, Victoria and ACT are all on track to have over 80% first dose coverage of people aged 12 years and older.
NSW has released an updated roadmap today, with plans to allow travel to regional NSW at the 80% target. The lower vaccination rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and people in regional and remote regions, pose clear risks for those who are not vaccinated. More work needs to be done to close this gap, and a target needs to be set for the NSW Roadmap of vaccination rates for Aboriginal people. As vaccination rates among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people still remain lower than the general population, and when restrictions are lifted, this can have a devastating impact on Aboriginal communities. In particular, Aboriginal communities in rural and remote areas we have seen have been at a heightened risk, for example in NSW’s Far West only just last month, the COVID-19 outbreak had spread to Wilcannia and since the Wilcannia outbreak we have since had other outbreaks in other regional and remote communities across the state. This having devastating consequences in terms of physical health as well as impacting the social and emotional health and wellbeing of both the individual and the wider community.
We need to make sure that no one is left behind. The federal and state governments should provide the support necessary to ensure that vaccine targets are met for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population and that everyone across Australia has the opportunity to be vaccinated before the inevitable exposure that will occur when restrictions are lifted.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander OzSAGE working group recommends that at least 85% and preferably over 90% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 12 and over are vaccinated prior to NSW lifting restrictions to protect our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities leaving no-one behind. This should be the target, rather than 80% of 16 years and over as the NSW state average, before non-essential travel is allowed to remote and regional NSW.
There have been calls from other states and territories peak bodies and health leaders who have also called for higher vaccination rates of 90-95% for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people including the Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association and The Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory before relaxing restrictions and opening borders. A higher vaccination rate is important as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population has a relatively younger age structure than the wider population and living with more chronic health conditions that increase the risk of serious illness and hospitalisation from COVID. Higher vaccination will also help better protect young children and the unvaccinated. High vaccination rates are certainly achievable.
The OzSAGE working group also recommends that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community health leaders and organisations are at the centre of the decision making at every stage, and that governments continue to work with community leaders as efforts to supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander vaccine uptake is stronger when community led.
Trusted community leaders and Aboriginal health organisations are best placed to empower communities, address vaccine hesitancy that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people may have – this is due to factors such as colonial history which has played a role in mistrust between Aboriginal people and governments, as well as COVID-19 vaccine misinformation such as discouraging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from receiving the vaccine. There has been particular concerns of misinformation being disseminated on social media platforms and there have also been recent reports that some faith groups have been discouraging vaccine uptake, particularly in remote communities. Community leadership plays a pivotal role in communicating culturally appropriate and tailored messaging for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people about COVID, vaccinations and protective measures to keep community safe and strong.
We do know that further efforts will be needed and this is possible with governments and Aboriginal leaders and organisations continuing to work together. There are known issues with health service gaps, with an immediate need being to address workforce staff shortages. This is particularly important for regional and remote places here where health care services are already stretched. Additionally, as restrictions relax and boarders begin to open, there is a need to increase health promotion efforts and face masks supplies within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities so people are aware of the risks.
Going forward, additional modelling scenarios for vaccination rates specifically for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population for opening up and the potential impact of childhood vaccinations may be warranted. However, this will require assessments of the quality of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander data to ensure accuracy. The OzSAGE Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander working group recommends that any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander COVID data reported is comprehensive and disaggregated. Furthermore, disaggregated data on vaccine rates and Aboriginality could also help determine whether non-essential travel to remote communities should be allowed.