More than 3,000 Indigenous Australians have been infected with Covid-19 in New South Wales since the June outbreak, as lagging vaccination rates take their toll.
Seven Indigenous people have died in the NSW outbreak and there are currently 872 active cases, according to statistics sourced from the NSW health department.
The shadow minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, has accused the federal government of a lack of political will to fix the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous vaccination rates.
The gap has continued to widen despite the army being sent into western NSW and plans to deploy them to another 30 Indigenous communities where vaccination rates remain lower than the rest of the state.
The health minister, Greg Hunt, has defended the rollout, claiming the issue for Indigenous Australians was now one of “confidence and hesitation” rather than access.
According to health department data, there had been 3,090 cases of Covid in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in NSW since the June outbreak began – more than 5% of the 55,570 locally acquired cases recorded in NSW. The figure was higher than the population share of 3.4%.
The vast majority (2,800) of those cases had been since 11 August, when the first case was recorded in Walgett.
As at 26 September, 51.2% of Indigenous Australians aged 12 and over have had at least one vaccination dose Australia-wide, while 32.2% have had both doses.
According to a Guardian Australia analysis of vaccination data, the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians who are fully vaccinated had grown from 8.3 percentage points at the start of August to 17.2 at the end of September.
The gap among those with at least one dose had also grown from 15.6 points to 21.4.
The states with the worst record of vaccinating Indigenous Australians were Western Australia, where just 15.7% of those aged 12 or over were fully vaccinated, Queensland (23.4%) and South Australia (24.2%).
The peak Aboriginal health body, the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), said the vaccination gap was partly due to the low coverage among the younger population.
Almost 90% of the Indigenous population is under 60, and many of them had only recently become eligible for vaccination.
“This is really an issue about immunisations for younger Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” the NACCHO medical adviser, epidemiologist Dr Jason Agostino, said.
“If we look at the over-60 population, more than 70% have had a first dose nationwide and in ACT, NSW and Victoria it’s about 85%.”
Agostino said he was “quite confident” that the ACT, Victoria and NSW would reach a fully vaccinated rate above 80% for the 12 and over population before the end of October. But he said states which have had very few Covid cases, such as Queensland and Western Australia, should be dramatically lifting their vaccination rates now, to avoid a disaster like the one unfolding in Wilcannia, which now had more than 156 cases in a population of 720 people.
“It’s so important, because starting to lift your vaccination [rates] during an outbreak is not the ideal time,” he said.
“As you’ve seen in western NSW, in the space of six weeks, they’ve had almost 1,000 cases and they’ve had five deaths in that region. Now is the time to be vaccinating.”
Burney said there was “clearly a widening gap in vaccination rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians”.
“In every single state the gap in vaccination rates for First Nations people have worsened,” she told Guardian Australia.
Asked about the infection rate in NSW, Burney said the issue was “completely predictable and avoidable”.
“The fact it took four weeks to get motor homes out into Wilcannia so people could isolate and stop infecting each others is a case in point.
“I’m pleased to see the availability of vaccines now in western NSW, but that’s not the only issue,” she said, citing lack of access to basics including pharmacies and supermarkets in some communities.
Earlier, Burney told Radio National the federal government had failed to make good on its promise to lead a vaccination surge in 30 communities.
“We’ve heard nothing since about how that’s going, whether it’s started … What has happened to that program?”
A NSW Health spokesperson said the federal government is “responsible for the vaccination rollout to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, as set out in its priority groups”.
“NSW Health is supporting the Australian government and works in collaboration with local communities to provide access to vaccine.”
The spokesperson cited walk-in clinics in areas with large Aboriginal populations including Dubbo, Walgett, Bourke, Brewarrina and Goodooga.
“In addition, there are pop-up vaccination clinics in Wilcannia, Dareton, Wentworth and Balranald, as well as mobile vaccination teams operating in Wilcannia and Broken Hill.”
On 13 September, a new vaccination centre for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 12 years and over opened at Kimberwalli in Whalan to increase access to vaccination in western Sydney.
From 18 – 19 September NSW Health held a state-wide Covid-19 vaccination blitz to increase vaccinations among Aboriginal people, with Aboriginal staff at 18 vaccination sites across NSW.
On Thursday Hunt told reporters in Melbourne the “focus on Indigenous vaccination is an absolute priority”.
Hunt said federal health authorities were “working very closely with state, territory and Indigenous leaders”.
“You can get quite binary results: some communities where there is strong support you’ll see very high rates [of vaccination], other communities can have very low rates even though vaccine is available.
“Our task here is to work collectively in dealing with some of the myths, and deal with some of those peddling anti-vax messages to Indigenous communities, and work with our great Indigenous health leadership.”
Hunt said the ADF had been focusing on western NSW “which has seen vaccination rates climb at a very fast pace” and would now switch attention to the other 30 communities identified.
Burney said she was “sick of” the government using vaccine hesitancy as an excuse. “If there is vaccine hesitancy do something about it.
“There are some very obvious things I have suggested for months,” she said, citing New Zealand’s greater transparency with weekly vaccination data and the need to invest more in Aboriginal media.