Keeping remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities safe from COVID-19

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Photo: Stewart Roper

Australian Government Department of Health

The COVID-19 restrictions are lifting across Australia. A measure of our success so far is how few Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have had COVID-19, with none of these cases being in remote or very remote communities.

There is more to this than luck. In early March 2020, the Australian Government convened the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Group on COVID-19. The Advisory Group is co-chaired by the Department of Health and the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO). Its expertise guides culturally appropriate pandemic policies and responses, underpinned by shared decision-making and self-determination.

Australian Government funding, through the Remote Communities Preparedness and Retrievals Package, helped remote communities prepare for a COVID-19 outbreak.

The Package offers grants to remote community organisations such as local health clinics. It also funds state and private aero-medical providers to support early evacuation of people suspected or confirmed to have coronavirus.

The Advisory Group, in partnership with the Kirby Institute and Flinders University, established a COVID-19 Point of Care Testing Program. The program gives remote communities across Australia access to rapid testing within their region. This means primary care services are no more than a two to three hour drive from a testing location.

On 21 May 2020, two point of care tests were conducted in remote Western Australian communities. In both cases, the test came back negative and prevented costly and potentially stressful evacuation of the patients. This meant the people tested could stay in community, connected to their support networks.

The Australian Government Department of Health and NACCHO have also partnered with the Australian National University. This successful partnership is developing online COVID-19 training for remote area Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander healthcare workers.

Five online training modules are being developed. They cover key COVID-19 related matters such as:

  • identifying people who have been in contact with someone with COVID-19 in remote communities
  • Personal Protective Equipment
  • interviews, and
  • data management.

To date, two modules have been delivered online. More than 13,000 people have completed the first module and 10,000 the second (at 28 May 2020). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health practitioners can claim the training as continuous professional development to meet their ongoing registration requirements.

Governments, in consultation with communities, implemented biosecurity measures to restrict travel into some remote communities. These measures require people to quarantine before entering communities   to stop the virus reaching vulnerable populations.

The restrictions will stay in place until September, unless communities and governments agree to lift them earlier. The Advisory Group’s Remote Framework helps communities and governments decide how and when to move forward while keeping people, families and communities safe.

For further information and resources for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples visit:

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