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.
- Before the Queensland border opened, Torres and Cape had no local COVID cases
- There are now 228 active cases
- Leaders say they have asked to quickly test essential workers and travelers entering the region
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
“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.
“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.
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.”
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