Senate select committee on Covid-19 hears of Indigenous vaccine rates

In what has been described as a ‘chaotic’ process, Indigenous vaccination rates are lagging more than 20 per cent behind the general population.

The government has “no specific timeline” to drive vaccination rates in Australia’s Indigenous population despite figures showing they are more than 25 per cent behind the general population.

In what has been described as a “chaotic” process, rural and remote health officials have told a senate committee they were often left in the dark about supply, had doses of vaccines delivered to the wrong clinics and were prohibited from attempting to establish pop-up clinics in remote communities.

Communication failures with government agencies paired with the initial slow rollout, hesitancy, misinformation and complacency have provided the perfect storm for vulnerable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

Just 51.7 per cent of Indigenous Australians have had their first dose of a vaccine, while only 42.3 per cent are fully vaccinated – a significant lag behind the general population where 83.6 per cent of Australians have had one dose and 65.4 per cent are fully vaccinated.

Rates of vaccination in Indigenous people in states like Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory are lagging behind all other jurisdictions – an issue officials have blamed on a level of complacency and a lack of urgency more so than supply or access to vaccine.

Prior to the NSW outbreak this year, the country’s Indigenous population had been mostly untouched by the impacts of Covid-19.

Since June, more than 4000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in NSW have contracted the virus, and around the country, 388 have been hospitalised, of which 40 were admitted to intensive care. Three Indigenous Australians have died during the NSW outbreak.

While chief medical officer Paul Kelly says rates of hospitalisation are “roughly the same” as the rest of the population, officials agree there is a concern those rates could increase as states begin to open back up and the vaccination gap remains.

Fronting the senate select committee on Covid-19 on Thursday, Covid-19 taskforce co-ordinator Lieutenant General John Frewen said closing that gap was his primary concern, but that effort was hindered by three distinct challenges.

“One is hesitancy, two is misinformation, and three is issues around complacency,” he said.

“There are a whole range of reasons that can underpin hesitancy, some are very legitimate. In terms of misinformation, there is some very hard-to-counter information which can be of a religious nature. It can bring into question whether vaccines will have a detrimental effect on the reproductive system and even stories around vaccines negating indigeneity.

“These are very difficult to counter.

“Then, there is complacency in many areas where Covid has not affected communities or the state or territory as a whole.”

General Frewen said as “very high” second dose ratios are achieved in the general population, a “catch-up” in Indigenous rates will result.

“We will see over coming weeks some good movement in these numbers,” he said.

General Frewen noted that over the past three days, the percentage of the Indigenous population who had received their first dose was up on the general population – the first time that trend had occurred.

Looking ahead, General Frewen said localised communication strategies were key to driving vaccination rates higher in Indigenous communities.

“We need to understand which of these three, or if all three, are relevant to (a specific) community,” he said.

But Amanda Kelly from the Rural and Remote Medical Services said the commonwealth had failed to communicate effectively with services on the ground throughout the rollout.

“We were never told about the ADF coming in and setting up clinics (in regional and rural NSW). There was a lot of confusion about what was happening on the ground,” she said.

“We needed more communication … We were never consulted about it.

“We didn’t have much clarity or understanding about supply, about what was happening in general practice and the arrival of the ADF.

Ms Kelly said the rollout had been “completely chaotic” and made co-ordinating with local communities “extremely difficult”.

General Frewen said while the government was working to provide “every opportunity” for all Australians to get vaccinated, there was no “specific timeline” on improving rates of Indigenous vaccination despite states preparing to ease border restrictions.

“We have the supply and distribution in place. The key variable in vaccination rates across the population is willingness to come forward,” General Frewen said.

“Any enterprise with human motivation is very unreliable … There is no specific projection.”

Indigenous vaccine rates (first dose/second dose)

  • AUS: 57.49/42.29
  • ACT: 84.27/65.23
  • NSW: 77.89/60.63
  • NT: 53.81/ 38.76
  • Queensland: 45.15/33.03
  • SA: 45.15/33.83
  • Tasmania: 63.78/50.06
  • Victoria: 57.29/50.91
  • WA: 36/22.51

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