The federal government will deploy five teams of Australian Defence Force personnel to western New South Wales as part of an urgent push to vaccinate vulnerable Indigenous communities, as the region scrambles to get ahead of a Delta outbreak.
The “highly mobile, highly flexible and highly trained” 14-member vaccination teams, including medics, nurses and logistics specialists will begin arriving in western NSW on Wednesday and will be based in Dubbo, where an outbreak is spreading among the Aboriginal population.
An Australian Medical Assistance Team (Ausmat) will also be dispatched to provide clinical support for the health network in the region, along with delivery of extra personal protective equipment and vaccine supplies.
The push comes as 116 cases of Covid-19 are active in the region that is home to many of the state’s most remote Indigenous communities, with 107 cases in Dubbo, two cases in Bourke, three in Mudgee, and four in Walgett.
Despite the Indigenous population being identified as a priority group for vaccination, less than 20% of the Aboriginal population aged 16 and over in western NSW has received one dose of any vaccine, and only 8% were fully vaccinated.
This means the Indigenous vaccination rate is significantly lower than the overall rate for the same region, where 36.9% of all people have had at least one dose and 16.3% of all people are fully vaccinated, according to geographic vaccination statistics provided by the Department of Health.
Guardian Australia has reported that the vast majority of Covid cases in the region are among Aboriginal people, and 40% are in largely unvaccinated Aboriginal children aged between 10 and 19 years old.
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, said on Tuesday that the situation was concerning, but the federal government and NSW government were attempting to address the issue of low vaccine uptake.
“It is challenging in different populations to have higher rates of vaccinations, some communities are more challenging. Their remoteness and many other issues play into that and of course we want those vaccination rates to be as high as they possibly can,” Morrison said.
“We continue to seek to encourage those communities to work with us in those efforts but it is concerning to us what’s happening in western New South Wales, of course it is, and that’s why the additional resources and efforts and doses and masks and AUSMAT teams and all of this are being provided to ensure that we can address that situation.”
Federal chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, when asked why more effort had not been made to vaccinate the vulnerable population before an outbreak emerged, urged people not to be “looking backwards”.
“Let’s look forwards, let’s look what’s happened in the last few days, extraordinary efforts, literally thousands of vaccinations happening in places as far flung as Walgett, Bourke … and many other places in western New South Wales.”
The minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, said that some Indigenous people had been fearful of adverse effects and had chosen not to get vaccinated when supplies were offered earlier in the program, but vaccination rates were now lifting substantially.
“In some places they thought that they would be fairly distant from what was happening in capital cities. There is now a realisation that this virus can travel anywhere because of the movement of people,” Wyatt said.
“There is that sense of secureness within their remote communities. This has now changed and it’s a gamechanger and that’s why we’re seeing the stepping up.
“People are now believing that it is time for them to take the proactive action and the elders and the leaders are ensuring that the straight messages, straight talking is now part of what community are hearing.”
At the NSW Covid update on Tuesday, authorities announced 18 new coronavirus cases in the region, meaning there are now 116 cases of coronavirus in western NSW.
Dubbo is the focus of the region’s outbreak, now with two cases that have spread into the nearby communities of Narromine and Gilgandra.
At a western NSW Covid update attended by figures including the Dubbo mayor and Indigenous health leaders, authorities revealed that 84 healthcare workers in the region are isolating due to Covid exposure and that health staffing could become a pressure point in containment efforts.
Farther west, Broken Hill has recorded its first case, in a man who had visited Wilcannia in the days between his symptoms beginning on Friday and his diagnosis on Monday. Contact tracers are yet to identify the source of transmission.
The renewed push to vaccinate vulnerable Indigenous communities comes after the nation administered almost 280,000 vaccines on Monday, a record number.
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Morrison said the past week had seen more doses delivered as a share of the population than any week in the United Kingdom’s vaccination program, and was the equivalent of almost 200 doses a minute.
“In the brief time I’ve been speaking here, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of doses going through getting us one step closer with every single dose,” Morrison said.
He said every state and territory except WA now had more than 25% of their population with two doses, and urged people to stay positive.
“Let’s not give up. That’s not our nature. Let’s not give in to that. Let’s continue to look forward. Sometimes you can only see the tunnel and not the light. But I want to tell you the light is there. And every single day you’re helping us achieve that.”
The health minister, Greg Hunt, said the vaccine figures were “heartening” with more than 10m Australians having received at least one dose.
“That’s the number that’s immensely important because it overwhelmingly leads to people having their second dose, and that’s very heartening.”
The plea comes as more than half of the country remains in lockdown, with the NSW, Victorian and ACT governments all hopeful of securing more vaccine supplies to rapidly increase the vaccination rate.
About half of an extra million Pfizer doses secured by the government from Poland are due to arrive in Australia this afternoon. The first instalment arrived on Sunday, with Hunt saying they had now been batch tested by the therapeutic goods administration and would be distributed over the next few days.