What happens when Northern Territory authorities ‘flow’ into remote communities to deliver vaccines

Since the start of the pandemic, territories have been told that it was a question of when, not whether, COVID-19 would spread to a remote Aboriginal community.

Early last week, the nightmare scenario finally emerged when Robinson River became the first to face a COVID-19 eruption.

A few days earlier, Prime Minister Michael Gunner had released his government’s updated plan for dealing with clusters among remote and vulnerable residents.

“The most important public health measure you can take if you get a COVID case in a remote community is to rush to that community with the vaccine,” he said.

He based his rationale on modeling from the Doherty Institute, which showed that “vaccination increases” would significantly reduce the risk, especially in places where the majority of residents were yet to be inoculated.

“If you get a COVID case in a remote community and you make a vaccination increase in that community, you will reduce – halve – the risk of hospitalization in the community and thus death.”

The total number of cases in the ongoing outbreak is 40.

First ‘waves’ in remote communities

NT Health personnel wearing PPE on the balcony of a donga.
The NT Health teams have been sent to Katherine, Robinson River, Binjari and Rockhole in the past week.(Delivered: NT Health)

As soon as the first case was confirmed in the Robinson River, a “rapid assessment team” of eight people was flown more than 1,000 kilometers southeast of Darwin to test residents and vaccinate those who wanted the sting.

The community was already one of the most grafted in the territory.

An NT Health team in a remote community stands in front of a van.
Additional health personnel have been sent to remote communities following outbreaks to increase vaccination rates.(Delivered: NT Health)

But its initial dose of 87 percent quickly rose to 100 percent thanks to the increase.

Days later, fast rating teams were deployed again – this time to Binjari and Rockhole, on the outskirts of Katherine.

NT Police work their way through the locked community of Rockhole.
Police and health teams were first dispatched to the communities of Binjari and Rockhole after a positive sewage test.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

But vaccination rates in these two communities were dangerously low.

The government of the territory has not published exact rates, except to say that they were below 70 percent.

An NT Health employee is standing next to a pig biting their PPE coat.
NT Health staff have struggled with scorching heat and local animals during their testing and vaccination efforts.(Delivered: NT Health)

But after several days, health teams in fully personal protective equipment, working in temperatures of nearly 40 degrees Celsius, have helped change the forecast for residents.

Sir. Gunner said yesterday that the increase in vaccinations led Binjari and Rockhole, as well as the nearby Warlpiri community, to reach a 100 percent vaccination rate on the first dose.

“Of course you prefer to vaccinate people in advance, but a reactive vaccine response is essential to reduce hospitalizations,” Mr Gunner said yesterday.

“So we’ve done everything we can.

“I thank everyone in these communities for raising their hand to be vaccinated.”

The leader of the Robinson River community, Dickie Dixon, praised the commitment of health care teams during the outbreak.

“Please show respect for my people and my community and also the team that worked through this process,” he said in a video posted on Facebook by Northern Territory Senator Malarndirri McCarthy.

“These guys did not hesitate and stayed outside, they came in and worked with the community and worked through this.

“These teams that are coming around in your area that are infected now are supporting them.”


Residents moved out of the community

A CareFlight plane on the tarmac in Katherine.
Cases and close contacts from Binjari were the first to be transported to Darwin on Saturday night.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

Another element of the containment strategy has been the evacuation of vulnerable people from remote communities whose overcrowded homes can lead to the rapid spread of the virus.

An aerial photo of the Binjari community in the northern territory.
The Binjari community is located about 330 kilometers south of Darwin.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

During the current outbreak in Binjari, more than 30 positive cases and close contacts in a community of about 200 people have been transported to the Howard Springs quarantine center near Darwin.

“Wherever we are [residences with] overcrowding, or where it is simply not a case where a person can have access to their own washes for example… it creates a limited pool for those who can quarantine without going to [Howard Springs]”, said Police Commissioner Jamie Chalker.

Even more people from Binjari are likely to be relocated to Howard Springs after another case related to the community was registered yesterday, he said.

“That’s the model we want to continue with so we can have it [communities] out of these schemes sooner rather than later. “

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