Concerns have been raised about low vaccination levels in the Pilbara as Western Australia approaches the scheduled date for reopening the state’s border, with around 40% of Pilbara residents still completely unvaccinated.

As of 10 January, 52.7% of Pilbara residents over 12 had received two doses of a COVID vaccine. Even more troubling; only 59.5% had received at least one dose, meaning 40.5% of Pilbara residents had no vaccine protection against the coronavirus. WA’s border is set to open on 5 February.

Senator for Western Australia and Yamatji-Noongar woman Dorinda Cox told the National Indigenous Times that local health workers said they faced vaccine supply and hesitancy issues.

“We asked Murujuga [Aboriginal Corporation] what are the issues they face in terms of vaccination. One is hesitancy, sections of the community have been infiltrated by anti-vaxxers, which is problematic for a lot of reasons. There is a lot of fear about getting it because there is a lot of misinformation about what the impact is going to be,” she said.

“By getting the vaccine they can protect themselves and their mob. The most important cohort is 12-16 year olds because they go from house to house, from town to town. There is a lot of hesitancy in that age group. We have to be thinking about children and their exposure to COVID, and adults as well will be moving around trying to keep cool in this weather,” she said.

The Senator said a local COVID vaccine provider had put in an order for more vaccine doses on December 22 which were expected to arrive 4 January, but still had not arrived early on 13 January.

“Local police had to drive from Roebourne to Port Hedland to get 20 vials to cover [supply] until the next shipment. The Federal government is responsible for that.”

A Commonwealth Health Department spokesperson told the National Indigenous Times later on 13 January “we are advised the delivery of 480 doses has now been received by the provider”.

“The delivery for this provider had been scheduled for the week commencing 10 Jan 2022, as was advised to the provider on 23 December 2021,” they said.

The spokesperson said primary care orders “were supplemented prior to Christmas, with orders for Moderna doubled and an additional 120 doses per order and were delivered last week”.

A Western Australian state government spokesperson told the National Indigenous Times that increasing vaccination rates “amongst these vulnerable communities is of the utmost importance and is a key area of focus for the WA Vaccine Program”.

“While there are many reasons as to why certain groups or individuals may be hesitant to be vaccinated, all efforts are made to engage with stakeholders and communities across the State and continue to bring more opportunities for COVID-19 vaccinations.

“The focus of the Keeping Culture Safe and Strong: Vaccination Focus program, which was launched in late November will continue, covering both metropolitan and regional Western Australia. The sole purpose is to boost vaccination rates for Aboriginal people.”

The spokesperson said WA Health and WA Police teams are engaging with communities, “talking face to face and one on one with people” and including house to house visits and offering vaccinations to hospital inpatients and outpatients.

“An extensive number of activities are underway in the Pilbara including mobile response vaccinations teams that are continuing to offer door to door in all towns across the Pilbara. Also, vaccinators are being deployed to WACHS run remote Aboriginal communities offering opportunistic vaccinations to community members. WACHS is continuing to work with industry to ensure access for residential port and mine workers in coastal and inland towns.

“Efforts also include clinics extending hours and opening on weekends where possible WACHS teams are supporting local pharmacies by offering vaccine staff to operate from these settings during weekends.”

Senator Cox said there appeared to be a lack of “investment in local community solutions to vaccine hesitancy”.

“Police are now refurbishing a booze bus to send it across the Pilbara to talk about getting vaccinated but I can tell you now, that is going to lead to a lot of hesitancy and a lot of local people not willing to engage,” she said.

by Giovanni Torre