Health workers have increased testing for coronavirus at Gurriny Yealamucka Health Service in Yarrabah. (ABC News: supplied)
First coronavirus cases confirmed in Central Australia, as services drop everything to help stop the spread to remote communities
More than 200 people have been forced into quarantine in a remote Indigenous community, with vulnerable elders living alongside possible coronavirus cases due to a lack of isolation facilities.
- Residents of indigenous communities say overcrowding makes physical distancing and quarantine measures difficult
- The overcrowding means some residents with coronavirus symptoms are fearful they’ll pass the disease on to older residents
- The Federal Government has announced measures to combat the spread, with the Minister for Indigenous Australians saying “we will get through this”
Health services in Yarrabah, in far north Queensland, have ramped up COVID-19 testing among residents showing symptoms this week, as the virus draws closer to their community.
The town of about 3,000 people is only 50 kilometres from Cairns, where there have been dozens of confirmed cases.
Local doctor Jason King from Gurriny Yealamucka Health Service said the residents were “incredibly vulnerable”.
“We’re doing our best to keep the disease out because it could just be catastrophic,” Dr King said.
More than 400 residents in Yarrabah have existing lung conditions and there is only one ventilator in the local clinic.
“We’ve performed over 20 tests on potential suspected cases, going by the extended testing criteria from the Government,” he said.
But many residents awaiting test results have no way to self-isolate, forcing entire households into quarantine.
“The overcrowding here in Yarrabah is extreme, we’ve got on average, 10 people, perhaps up to 20 people in some houses,” Dr King said.
Denise Cedric’s house is home to four generations, who are trying their best to self-isolate. (ABC News: Supplied)
In some instances, those suspected of having COVID-19 were still forced to live alongside their elderly parents or vulnerable family members with an increased risk profile.
“Being able to effectively socially distance in a household like that is impossible,” he said.
“There’s about 200 people in those 20 households that are needing to isolate in quarantine now, and that number has grown every day.”
‘I’m going to pass this virus onto him’
Yarrabah resident Denise Cedric, 53, went into self-isolation this week after waking up with symptoms.
Denise Cedric wore a mask inside her home to protect her elderly parents while awaiting her coronavirus test results. (ABC News: Supplied)
“It caused a lot of anxiety because I had to wait for three days to have those results [and] we had to try and maintain social distancing within the household.”
About eight people spanning four generations live in her home, including her parents who are in their 80s, her sick husband and an asthmatic granddaughter.
“I’ve got my father who’s got a heart condition and I have my husband, he’s another concern because he [also] has a heart condition,” she said.
“I’m really feeling terrible because I thought, oh my God, I’m going to pass this virus onto him.”
Denise wore a mask in her home and tried as hard as possible to self-isolate, but it was extremely difficult while caring for her parents.
Denise Cedric (R) with her family. They are all worried about coronavirus in the community. (ABC News: Supplied)
“Not only washing my own hands, but anything that I’ve touched inside the house,” she said.
“I’ve been telling my parents over-and-over, ‘Mum and Dad, you have to go and wash your hands, because I’ve just touched that’.”
Her test came back negative.
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“I’d tell you, a big weight just lifted off my shoulder because I was just on edge the whole time,” she said.
So far none of the tests performed in Yarrabah have come back positive.
WA community finds self-isolation solutions
The desert community of Tjuntjuntjara, in Western Australia has established its own quarantine rooms to try and prevent an outbreak.
The town of about 150 residents also struggles with overcrowded homes and vulnerable residents.
Tjutjuntjara is now a closed community with any new arrivals needing to quarantine in converted caravans. (Supplied: WA Police)
The local Aboriginal corporation, Paupiyala Tjarutja, started converting unused buildings into isolation rooms.
“We’ve got 11 caravans and also self-contained units — they’ve very small,” Paupiyala Tjarutja chief executive Moray Ralph said.
The new isolation rooms can now be used to quarantine local residents on country, but the community hopes it doesn’t come to that.
“If we had to get to that point, it’s a crisis,” he said.
‘Funding needed’ in Indigenous communities
Back in Yarrabah. the community is also looking to convert buildings and unused caravans into isolation rooms, but even that may not be enough.
“Five rooms is just not going to cut it, so we have to look at other ways to make sure we can support households in isolation when they’re being quarantined,” Dr King said.
He urged the federal and state governments to consider funding isolation solutions in remote communities.
“That’s going to cost nearly $1 million for a community the size of Yarrabah to be able to provide safe and effective and evidence-based isolation for community members,” he said.
“There’s many hundreds of people who are now being isolated in hotel rooms across Australia and being supported with food and accommodation for that purpose, which is an essential part of controlling this pandemic within our borders.”
Stay up-to-date on the coronavirus outbreak
The Federal Government yesterday announced $10 million funding for the four Land Councils in the Northern Territory to allow them to address immediate infrastructure needs, such as setting up outstations as isolation spaces.
A further $10 million will go towards night patrol services to help with transporting residents to their communities and adherence to social-distancing rules in the outback.
“We will get through this together by everyone following the health advice and complying with the restrictions that are necessary to protect our elders and our culture,” Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt said.
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