A person working at the WA/NT border checkpoint near Kununurra has tested positive to COVID-19. (ABC Kimberley: Rebecca Nadge)
Premier Mark McGowan has expressed “grave concerns” for the spread of coronavirus in WA’s remote Kimberley region as he imposed new travel restrictions within the region that go beyond tough measures already imposed across the rest of the state.
- Shire borders in the Kimberley will close at midnight
- The tough travel restrictions are aimed at protecting Aboriginal communities
- Six local COVID-19 cases emerged overnight, including five health workers
A spike in COVID-19 cases saw six new positive test results confirmed locally overnight, including a Halls Creek doctor and a border checkpoint worker.
These cases made up 75 per cent of the total cases confirmed across the whole of Western Australia in the past 24 hours.
Non-essential travel to the Kimberley has already been prohibited and Aboriginal communities have been closed to the public.
The new measures announced ton Thursday will come into effect from midnight, restricting movement between the region’s four local government areas.
Mr McGowan said shire borders would close to minimise the risk of the virus spreading.
“We know just how vulnerable the Kimberley and Aboriginal people are to viruses like coronavirus,” he said.
“I hold very serious concerns about the situation in the Kimberley. We must act fast.”
One of the 11 COVID-19 cases confirmed in the Kimberley was an employee checking vehicles passing through the WA border with the Northern Territory over the weekend.
That person had no recent overseas travel history.
Halls Creek is one of the several towns cut off to non-essential travellers following a spike in Kimberley COVID-19 cases. (Flickr: Yaruman5)
The Health Department is now working to identify any motorists who passed through the Kununurra checkpoint between Wednesday and Sunday who may have come into contact with the employee.
Another six of the person’s co-workers have been ordered to self-isolate and one is awaiting COVID-19 test results after they too started showing flu-like symptoms.
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Serious risks for healthcare workers
Five of Thursday’s cases in the Kimberley were hospital staff, with three from Broome, one in Kununurra and one in Halls Creek.
Among them is a healthcare worker from Broome Hospital, with a recent history of intrastate travel, who tested positive for the virus on Monday.
That staff member had no unprotected face-to-face contact with patients, but did come into close contact with several colleagues who have since been isolated.
Australian Medical Association WA President Andrew Miller said the Kimberley was proving a difficult area in which to stem the spread of coronavirus.
“We know that these communities are small, they are close … these areas don’t have back-up staff, so once these get quarantined you have to bring people in from elsewhere,” he said.
“We’re terrified for the Kimberley, as we are for the other regions.”
Dr Miller said the risks posed to remote health workers reflected the need for more widespread testing.
“It’s not surprising that a lot of healthcare workers have tested positive, because they tend to socialise together,” he said.
“These healthcare workers need to be treated as a rare and precious commodity, they’re going to be harder to find than gold.
“If they’re underequipped, they don’t have the right gear and they don’t have the right information, the whole thing could spiral down very quickly.”
Fears doctor may have spread virus
Health Minister Roger Cook said he has concerns for people who may have come into close contact with the Halls Creek doctor. (ABC News: James Carmody)
WA Health Minister Roger Cook said a nursing team had been sent to Broome to support the hospital there and another medical team would be sent from Perth in the next 24 hours.
He said there was some concern for patients from Broome Hospital but it appeared most exposure there was limited to other health workers.
“There would have been some contact with patients, we’re still waiting to understand the extent of that, but at this stage it doesn’t look like there was any close contact with patients,” he said.
Mr Cook said his biggest concern was for people who came into contact with a doctor at Halls Creek who tested positive to COVID-19.
“That particular doctor would have been seeing patients that were coming from a wide area of the Kimberley and then themselves transitioning back out into remote communities,” he said.
“That’s our focus at the moment to understand the extent of the exposure there, but the contact tracing teams are on the ground and they are making good progress.”
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Police, Defence Force sent to Kimberley
WA Police Commissioner Chris Dawson said additional resources were being deployed to the Kimberley to enforce the new restrictions.
“[That’s] to ensure that people who are not exempt will be able to be restrained, if I can put it that way, within those districts,” he said.
Police and ADF officers are being sent to the Kimberley to enforce the new travel restrictions. (Supplied: Kununurra Police)
Commissioner Dawson said State Emergency Service and Australian Defence Force personnel would also help at the local government borders.
He said police resources were also needed as several Kimberley officers had potentially been exposed to COVID-19.
“A number of police have been working closely with the quarantine officer at the Northern Territory — Western Australian border,” he said.
“We are working closely with Health to do contact tracing for at least four police officers from Kununurra, some possibly from Wyndham Police Station.
“I expect we’ll have to put a number of police into 14-day isolation.”
Information slow to reach remote regions
Halls Creek Shire President Malcolm Edwards said community leaders across the region were learning about key developments from the media, not the Government.
“It’s very upsetting really,” Mr Edwards said.
“Obviously they’re insisting that this changes and that we receive information as soon as possible, so hopefully that’s being addressed.”
Residents said the flow of information to the community had been haphazard and confusing.
Long-time resident Bonnie Edwards said people were anxious and she wanted a better idea of how the pandemic was spreading within the Kimberley.
Halls Creek resident Bonnie Edwards said government messaging about the pandemic was not cutting through to the community. (ABC News)
“People don’t know what happened at the hospital, they don’t know what’s going on,” she said.
“It should be told to the people so we can avoid this being spread around the community.”
She said messaging from the Government was not cutting through and it had been left up to police and local health workers to alert people face to face.
Local authorities have emptied out the Wunan Foundation’s workers hostel, about seven kilometres from Halls Creek, to make it available as an isolation facility.
The building has four self-contained units and another 12 rooms with shared facilities.
The shire has been working to issue public notices, while police and the Yura Yungi medical service have been working face to face with people to raise awareness about the need for physical and social distancing.
With Halls Creek a key healthcare centre for the region’s remote community residents, Yura Yungi chief executive Brenda Garstone said it was a serious problem.
“[Particularly] In terms of their living situation around overcrowding,” she said.
“If they’re one of the people that’s been contract traced and they now need to go into isolation, what do they do? There’s nothing in place for them to go into isolation.
“We are in dire straits and we do need a rapid response. Basically it should have been done yesterday.”
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