Torres and Cape disaster management groups call for rapid testing of people entering communities

As COVID cases began to reach the most remote places in Queensland in December, disaster management groups sent lockdown requests to the state’s Chief Health Officer (CHO) to stop people from enter their communities.

The applications were rejected and the groups were told the government had “no appetite” for the lockouts.

Now disaster management groups in Torres and Cape are calling on the Queensland Government to prioritize vulnerable First Nations communities by rapidly testing people entering the community.

Torres Strait Island Regional Council Mayor Phillemon Mosby said high rates of chronic illness, overcrowding, a housing crisis, limited acute healthcare and access issues due to remoteness have left island communities feel vulnerable and exposed to the current outbreak.

“We thought there would be special consideration for the distinct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities given the health disadvantage of our people,” said Cr Mosby.

Torres Strait Islands Mayor Phillemon Mosby said communities were concerned about the growing risk of COVID.(ABC NEWS: Marianne Faa)

“Due to the family culture of our 15 divisions or island communities, it is quite easy and the risk of a possible rapid outbreak is very high.

“We [15 outer islands] you have to wait for [COVID] test to be sent to Thursday Island. If you are in a very overcrowded house, the whole family must isolate themselves until the result comes back.”

Before the Queensland border opened on December 13, Torres and Cape Hospital and Health (TCHHS) had not recorded any local cases since the start of the pandemic.

COVID cases have now reached five of the 17 occupied islands, with Warraber, Masig and Badu islands recording their first cases this week.

Wide shot of an island.
Masig Island, located in the eastern part of the central Torres Strait island group, recorded its first case this week.(ABC News)

The Mayor of the Northern Peninsula Region Regional Council, Patricia Yusia, said a request to test people entering the NPA was based on evidence that COVID entered the community from outside.

“A lot of people want lockdowns and we’re letting them know that we don’t have the power to lockdown communities,” Cr Yusia said.

“They talk to me, the elders and they talk to me to make the right decision for our communities.”

A woman stands in front of a blue board
Patricia Yusia says the council’s disaster management group is working on a plan to slow the spread of COVID.(ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)

The teachers are coming back

On Thursday, the Queensland Government announced that from 1am on Saturday passes and negative tests would no longer be required for travel.

Torres Shire Council Mayor Vonda Malone said over the weekend that around 200 Education Queensland staff are expected to return to the Torres Strait.

Students from 15 outlying islands will converge with staff from Thursday Island schools at the start of term.

“We are in a state of uncertainty…our health care system is also starting to get strained because we have one hospital and one health service that serves the whole Cape and Torres Strait,” Cr Malone said.

Map of health facilities in the Torres Strait.
Thursday Island Hospital has no acute care available, but acute care is limited to Bamaga Hospital.(Provided: Queensland Health.)

“How are we working with the Queensland Government and considering additional measures to slow it down?

The ABC has contacted Queensland Education for comment on their policies in place to help protect vulnerable communities and frontline staff and is awaiting a response.

Cr Malone said a lack of infrastructure in remote locations meant that if frontline workers in shops, petrol stations or health services were affected, it could have a devastating effect.

Rapid antigen tests for small but vital operators could help prevent the spread of the virus and provide certainty of continuation.

Torres Strait Islander woman in front of Indigenous and Dhari artwork
Vonda Malone says people feel a high level of uncertainty.(ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)

“We know it’s a matter of supply and the Commonwealth and the state, they really need to work together to make sure First Nations people are prioritized,” Cr Malone said.

“There has been no commitment…it would be nice if we had a response from CHO on whether or not our discussion with him on access to rapid antigen testing would materialize.”

The health service receives tests

The TCHHS has confirmed that 77% of the eligible population aged 12 and over are fully vaccinated and 89% have at least one dose.

He also confirmed that rapid antigen test (RAT) kits were available but were only administered according to strict criteria; people with symptoms of COVID, close contacts and people identified by the health department.

TCHHS chief executive Beverley Hamerton said Queensland Health had prioritized the delivery of RAT kits.

“We are getting adequate deliveries of these kits,” she said.

IBIS supermarket sign.
IBIS on Thursday Island and Bamaga are running out of rapid antigen tests.(ABC Far North: Carli Willis)

Yadheykenu traditional owner Reg Williams said the Bamaga community takes health advice seriously.

“As soon as we heard this news, we asked all the city volunteers, or family members, to create posters and we put them on our front door,” Williams said.

“When people come to see the elderly in this house [they see the] do not enter, must sing from outside and spread the message, do not enter the yard [posters]”.

Mr Williams said there was now an emergency for vaccinations in the community.

“It’s scary because it’s here now. Last year we didn’t hear about it.”

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to search, up and down arrows for volume.
Play the video.  Duration: 3 minutes 36 seconds

How to tell your kids about their COVID-19 vaccination

Loading the form…