Calls for masks and resources to protect NT indigenous communities

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As Australia braces for a further surge in the pandemic, health officials in the Northern Territory are calling for the return of masks to protect people in remote communities and more resources to roll out vaccines.

Almost all restrictions have been eased as the nation tries to restore some semblance of normalcy, but two new strains of COVID-19, BA.4 and BA.5 – set to lead Australia into its third Omicron wave in the coming weeks – could turn progress upside down.

Health organizations are warning far more needs to be done to prevent a new COVID surge from threatening the country’s most vulnerable people, who live in Australia’s most remote corners.

Especially as a precipitous rise in influenza cases across the Northern Territory has already exacerbated ongoing staffing and bed shortages in hospitals, according to Sinon Cooney, executive director of the Katherine West Health Board.

“We are concerned about the waning immunity of the first two doses of the vaccine and the slower uptake of the third dose,” Mr Cooney said.

“COVID is still very real, and it’s still here, and the new variants are a cause for concern.”

Sinon Cooney says the new dominant strains of COVID are a cause for concern. (ABC News: Che Chorley)

More contagious than previous COVID variants and subvariants, BA.4 and BA.5 appear to be masters at bypassing immunity.

according to dr NT Chief Health Officer Charles Pain has said the number of COVID cases has been rising over the past 10 days and is expected to continue rising into “maybe the end of the month”.

Only about 70 percent of people over the age of five living in remote communities in the Katherine area have received their third vaccine.

Mr Cooney said a strained health care system plagued by staff shortages was already posing difficulties in rolling out fourth doses, which would be critical as cases rise.

“We still have a job ahead of us. And it’s really important for us that we have the resources to do that. And we’re asking the government to allocate resources to services like ours to make sure we can vaccinate people when they want to be vaccinated,” he says.

He said a “level of fatigue and fatigue” in the COVID space and a barrage of news that we’re now living with COVID is adding to the challenges.

“We’d like to see one [mask] mandate, but we understand that this may not be an outcome the Government is striving for,” Mr Cooney said.

“So we’re really encouraging people to continue to wear masks when they’re indoors where they can’t social distance.”

“Because if the government doesn’t make it mandatory, we can still make a difference by implementing these measures ourselves.

A man wearing a blue sweater and glasses in an art gallery looks at the camera.
NLC Chairman Samuel Bush-Blanasi. (ABC Katherine: Roxanne Fitzgerald)

Northern Land Council leader Samuel Bush-Blanasi said he would also like to see stricter regulations on mask-wearing and entry into remote Indigenous communities.

He also said he would like Aboriginal people to be put back on the “vulnerable people” list, in line with the Chief Health Officer’s guidance to ensure organizations have clarity on whether they need to mandate vaccines in the workplace.

“The flu is already in the community and COVID is now starting to creep in.”

“If it hits the community, there will be massive spread of COVID.”

Yesterday Prime Minister Natasha Fyles said there would be no changes to current COVID regulations at this time, including a change to mask-wearing rules.

This has caused concern to Mr Bush-Blanasi.

“I support the government saying that, but then again, I’m not too happy about it,” he said.

A woman with silver hair wearing a black top at a desk
A mask mandate could help reduce the rate of transmission of COVID, according to Deb Aloisi. (ABC News: Hamish Harty)

In the remote community of Binjari, near Katherine, residents are still mourning a loss after a 78-year-old elder became the first person in the NT to die of COVID-19.

The community experienced one of the NT’s toughest lockdowns, with unprecedented measures taken to enforce bans on people leaving their homes to stop the spread of COVID.

“I don’t want to go back at all to the time when we had a tough lockdown, it was scary and tough,” said Deb Aloisi, chief executive of Binjari Community Aboriginal Corporation.

Forced to isolate in chronically overcrowded homes, COVID has spread like wildfire through the community and with the recent closure of the NT’s isolation centre, Howard Springs, Ms Aloisi is concerned a third wave could have the same results.

“It would just riot,” Ms. Aloisi said.

“I want the government to try to do something now before it’s too late.”

a woman at a press conference
Prime Minister Natasha Fyles says there will be no changes to CHO orders. (ABC News: Che Chorley)

“Masks can be a very useful tool, but this is part of the transition from this pandemic, where we are CHO orders, to an endemic, where we are learning to live with the aftermath of COVID-19,” Prime Minister Natasha said Fyles to the media on Thursday.

dr Pain shared the sentiment but said that while it wouldn’t be an overreaction to reintroduce a mask mandate given mounting pressure nationally and discussions in other states, it must be a personal choice at the moment in the NT.

“We’re not responding to a more serious disease, we’re just responding to something that’s more contagious.

“As the Prime Minister said, we will not give a mandate, we are beyond that now, people don’t want us to tell them what to do, but hopefully they will take our advice.”

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