When COVID-19 started to make its way to the Pilbara, it wasn’t long before our most vulnerable population would become impacted.
The three Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services in the region pulled out all stops to ensure their communities would be protected and well prepared.
Puntukurnu Aboriginal Medical Service (PAMS) provides health care in Newman and the remote communities of Jigalong, Parnngurr, Punmu and Kunawarritji.
PAMS chief executive officer Robby Chibawe said his team met regularly with stakeholders, including WA Country Health Service, Western Desert Lands Aboriginal Corporation, Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa rangers, East Pilbara Independence Support and the local shires and communities since the pandemic commenced.
“One of the positives that came from the pandemic was that it brought all the agencies together more than ever before,” Robby said.
“From government agencies to resource companies, everyone banded together to fight the pandemic and protect the vulnerable people of the desert communities.”
In South Hedland, Wirraka Maya Health Service Aboriginal Corporation chief executive officer June Councillor said a key element was putting together an internal group to specifically deal with COVID.
“They came up with a range of ideas, such as home education and testing visits,” June said.
“We had testing stations on site in South Hedland; however, not all of our community can travel, so the outreach team would conduct home visits.”
With temperatures in the mid-40s, June said her staff worked in very challenging circumstances.
“Staff were working around the clock in blistering heat, all the while wearing full PPE. We wanted our staff to feel valued so providing lunch, a coffee van and additional COVID leave was a way
of showing our appreciation.”
Isolation and overcrowding
A significant challenge faced in managing the spread of COVID in the region was the prevalence of overcrowding.
“It was very difficult to get people to isolate if they had COVID because they were in homes with sometimes up to 15 people,” June said.
“Where possible, we would find the person accommodation elsewhere, but sometimes this option wasn’t available, which was a huge problem.”
Robby said a high number of COVID cases in Parnngurr (Cotton Creek) again highlighted the region’s problem of overcrowding.
“Our clinical manager, Steve Farrington, worked hard with other staff, community members, teachers and Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa ranger staff to manage the lack of adequate isolation facilities.
“Eventually the situation was brought under control through extensive collaboration; however, it highlights the inadequate housing supply in the remote Aboriginal communities.
“Housing is a key social determinant of health and the pandemic has underlined the need for a long-term solution to overcrowding.”
Robby said the remoteness of the region made it both expensive and logistically tricky to get muchneeded vaccines in communities.
“Due to remoteness and distances involved in some communities, distribution of vaccines by road was almost impossible. Unsealed roads means a bumpy ride, which caused some vaccines to become cloudy en route.
“We had to charter planes with special cold chain storage facilities to transport vaccines, which could cost up to $14,000 per trip. Fortunately, we eventually received extra funding through
NACCHO for these costs.”
In South Hedland, June said vaccine hesitancy and misinformation were their biggest obstacles.
“The outreach team’s home education visits were vital in the vaccination program,” June said.
“We know our community and could see how a single case could escalate very rapidly into multiple cases. Our team worked hard together to encourage community members to get vaccinated to protect their mob.”
Mawarnkarra Health Services chief executive officer Joan Hicks said her team also faced vaccine hesitancy in Roebourne.
As an organisation supporting all three Pilbara ACCHS, Pilbara Aboriginal Health Alliance (PAHA) liaised with the State Emergency Management Framework and Commonwealth Vaccination
PAHA chief executive officer Chris Pickett said this centralised liaison enabled each ACCHS to focus on their local COVID response.
“PAHA arranged additional nursing and admin workforce support, distributed PPE and Rapid Antigen Tests and arranged funding for essential equipment and security,” Chris said.
“However, the hard yards at the pointy end were done by the frontline staff of the ACCHS.
“They were truly amazing and the fact that there were few hospitalisations and now no active cases in remote Aboriginal communities is testament to their efforts.”