More than 40 Indigenous Territorians are among the first remote Australians to receive their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine after an Aboriginal-controlled clinic took charge of the vaccine rollout in the East Arnhem region of the Northern Territory.
- The COVID-19 rollout has moved into some of the Territory’s most remote regions
- Health officials say there are many challenges involved in the remote rollout
- Just over 9,000 vaccinations were administered by NT Health between February 22 and April 6
“It’s all about engagement and trust within the communities … we can’t afford to have strangers coming in from down south and coming through with the jab when they don’t even know these people,” said Yolngu Health practitioner and Miwatj Health public health officer Stuart McGrath.
The East Arnhem region is home to Yolngu people and located about 600 kilometres east of Darwin and 700 kilometres west of Cairns.
Mr McGrath said the NT government had offered to help with the vaccine rollout but Miwatj Health insisted that at least in the early stages it would take responsibility for it, despite not receiving any additional government funding.
Logistics for the rollout are difficult at this time, with many roads impassable due to the wet season.
Miwatj Health has received AstraZeneca vaccines delivered via plane by contractor DHL to remote clinics, including in Gapuwiyak, Yirrkala, Nhulunbuy, Milingimbi, Gunyangara and Ramingining.
Mr McGrath, who is also the NT’s Young Australian of the Year and on track to become the first Yolngu registered nurse, said more than geographic remoteness, building trust and making information accessible were the biggest challenges for the region.
He speaks a sentence in Yolgnu Matha to prove the point.
“See, I just spoke to you in a different language — language barriers, so that’s the first thing,” he said.
“[Health literacy] is quite low in general, let alone COVID and COVID vaccine, so yeah, it has its challenges.”
Miwatj Health has helped create in-language vaccine information videos and soon health workers like Mr McGrath will head out to communities to run vaccine question-and-answer sessions for remote residents.
Start small, build up
Miwatj Health medical director Molly Shorthouse said health workers were having to start small in terms of the number of vaccines they can administer, despite servicing some of the NT’s largest Aboriginal communities like Galiwin’ku, which is home to almost 2,500 people.
“One hundred doses per clinic is not ideal, however, our approach is really about building trust,” she said.
“Yolgnu people are our boss, not the government.
“We are waiting for them, the community, to feel a bit more comfortable before we do any big large-scale immunisation approaches.”
Dr Shorthouse said the clinic had not received funding to hire additional staff for the vaccination program and getting health workers to complete a mandatory six-hour vaccine training was difficult in already stretched remote clinics.
Even with only a small number of doses available per clinic, staff at the Gapuwiyak Health Centre managed to deliver 30 jabs in the first day and a half of delivery — something Dr Shorthouse said was “pretty good”.
“I think we’ll probably run out there by tomorrow,” she said.
In Darwin and Alice Springs, COVID-19 vaccinations are being delivered through local and Aboriginal community-controlled GP clinics, as well as Commonwealth-run respiratory clinics.
Across the Territory, NT Health has administered 9,028 vaccinations between February 22 and April 6.
Of these, 2,572 were second does.
A spokeswoman for the Australian Department of Health corrected an earlier response provided to the ABC which claimed “all 17 residential aged care facilities” in the Territory had been vaccinated, clarifying residents in 12 remote aged care homes were still waiting and would get their vaccines as part of the remote rollout.
“The Commonwealth is working with the Northern Territory government on the rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations for aged care residents in remote areas, as part of whole of community vaccination plans for remote areas,” the Department of Health spokeswoman said.