An Aboriginal woman with Covid and breathing difficulties was allegedly turned away from Wilcannia medical service on Wednesday and then later airlifted to Adelaide hospital, as local health officials admit the town does not have a ventilator, despite it having the highest rate of Covid transmission in New South Wales.
Government data reveals Wilcannia is now the hardest hit area in NSW for Covid cases per head of population. Locals say they are scared that “all they have is body bags” as the town has recorded more than 50 active cases in fourteen days.
Barkindji woman Monica Kerwin said in a Facebook live video on Wednesday night she had been contacted by a young woman who said she had been turned away from hospital.
“We don’t have a ventilator machine here right now in Wilcannia. And this woman needs medical treatment right now, she needs a ventilator, she is struggling to breathe and she’s home down there now. And when I rang somebody, they said: “ring triple-0”. I said: “What for? She was already at the hospital, and they wouldn’t let her in the front door”. They made her sit out in the cold,” Kerwin said.
“Somebody, anybody, get this out there. This is what’s going on in Wilcannia. And I’m crying, I’m tired, and nobody’s helping us.
“Health don’t have a duty of care, they don’t have a Covid plan here, they don’t have ventilators. They don’t have anything. I think they’ve just got body bags.”
The Far West Local Health District (FWLHD) confirmed that Wilcannia health service does not have a ventilator. A spokesperson said the patient was “treated and discharged” by the medical officer on Wednesday.
“The person subsequently deteriorated and this was picked up by the FWLHD ‘hospital in the home’ service. The on-call physician was consulted and the patient admitted to hospital. The patient was transferred later that night in a serious but stable condition to Adelaide for treatment.”
Wilcannia has a higher Covid transmission rate than the worst hotspots in Sydney, sparking fresh calls for a coordinated state and federal effort to help the tiny, majority-Aboriginal town manage increasing illness, as well as securing essential supplies and safe places for people to self-isolate.
The latest data from NSW Health, which uses postcodes for the smallest available areas, shows the postcode for Wilcannia has a rate of five active cases per 100 people, which is more than double the rate of western Sydney suburbs such as Edmondson Park and Guildford.
The rate is similarly high when looking at total local cases per 100 people since the start of the recent NSW outbreak in June.
Aboriginal health leaders in other states and territories are also calling on state and federal governments to step up efforts to help the small town, where overcrowded housing is common, general health is poor and people have limited access to fresh food and emergency medical care.
“Our hearts ache for countrymen and women in places like Wilcannia and Dubbo – a number of our staff here in the Territory have relations and close ties with them,” CEO of the Northern Territory’s Aboriginal medical services, John Paterson said.
Paterson said vaccination rates among Indigenous people need to be significantly higher than they are now, to avoid such a disaster occurring elsewhere.
“The targets suggested of 70 or 80% vaccination are totally fraudulent if applied to remote Australia. They do not take into account already low and uneven vaccination levels; they do not take into account the demographics of a high number of children into our communities.
“These targets may – or may not – work in the northern beaches of Sydney: they would totally fail our people.”
Labor has also raised concerns about NSW plans to open up parts of the state in September, or when the overall vaccination rate reaches 70 to 80%.
“I’ve said from the beginning we need to see greater and closer coordination between government and authorities with trusted local Aboriginal medical services, and it is clear this is simply not happening,” Linda Burney, shadow minister for Indigenous Australians said.
“The prime minister and the premier appear to be living in a parallel universe, impervious to the reality that First Nations people have been left behind in the vaccine race.”
In response to a question on Wednesday about whether NSW has failed Aboriginal communities, the NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, said the government has “worked really hard to support all of our vulnerable communities across the state, and we’ll continue to do that”.
Berejiklian – as the NSW health minister, Brad Hazzard, did last week – said that the vaccination rollout is a federal responsibility.
“Certain vulnerable communities were earmarked to be vaccinated by the commonwealth many months ago, and we’re addressing those issues now, we’re stepping up as a state and supporting the commonwealth in those vaccination programs,” she said.
“And our heart goes out to any person who feels vulnerable because they’re not vaccinated and that’s why we’re saying to everybody, please come forward and get the vaccine, there is supply available especially for vulnerable communities, but also for anybody who wants to safeguard their family and their loved ones.”