Yuendemu And Yuelamu Communities Band Together To Face First COVID Outbreak

As they do every week, Dadu Gorey, Fiona Kitson and Louise Kelly are a blur of action in the kitchen at Purple House Old People's Program in Yuendumu.

Key points:

  • Yuendemu and Yuelamu are located in the Tanami Desert, north-west of Alice Springs
  • The two communities have recorded 43 COVID cases so far 
  • A lockout has been extended until next Thursday

The workers at the aged care service are busy roasting potatoes, cooking rice and simmering chicken stew while outside, a hot desert wind blows in smoke from a nearby bushfire.

Mrs Gorey sings hymns while she washes the dishes. 

Like they do every week, Freddie Williams and Ericson White jump in a ute loaded with the freshly prepared hot meals, tinned food and fresh fruit, and make deliveries to nearly 40 people at homes in the region.

The remote Central Desert communities are about three hours up the Tanami Road north-west from Alice Springs.

Two women in a commercial kitchen prepare dozens of meal trays filled with potatoes and rice.
Louise Kelly and Fiona Kitson prepare meals to be delivered to older people across the community.(ABC News: Samantha Jonscher)

But this is no ordinary week for Yuendumu, home to the Warlpiri people.

Last Friday, three cases of COVID-19 were recorded: the community's first since the start of the pandemic.

a href="/news/2022-01-22/covid-live-blog-isolation-vaccination-case-numbers/100773264" data-component="ContentLink" data-uri="coremedia://article/100773264"">>Catch up on the main COVID-19 news from January 22 with a look back at our blog

COVID reaches remote areas

Many remote communities in the Northern Territory have until recently been free of COVID-19, protected by hardline border and biosecurity laws amid fears about the impact of the virus on Indigenous people who are statistically more prone to chronic illness.

A small town street lined by red dirt. To one side is a car bonnet decoratively painted as a "40" sign.
The streets of Yuendumu are noticeably quieter since the temporary lockout.(ABC News: Samantha Jonscher)

But border changes and the rapid spread of the virus across the country have seen COVID well and truly arrive in the Territory, with cases now at per capita rates on par with New South Wales and Victoria.

In Yuendumu and nearby Yuelamu, with a combined population of about 1,000 people, cases now number 43, with most COVID positive people and their close contacts taken to quarantine in Alice Springs and Howard Springs.

Some are reportedly still quarantining in their homes, where overcrowded conditions common in remote communities can make isolating a challenge.

But many Warlpiri say the community is pulling together to keep safe.

Since the outbreak, and amid a lockout that began on Monday, the vaccine hesitancy that has lingered in the Central Desert communities has finally begun to shift.

Last week, the over 16 double dose rate was 41 per cent; as of Thursday, the NT Government reports it is 58 per cent.

In both Yuendemu and Yuelamu, first dose rates for people aged over five are at 66 and 58 per cent.

On Friday, it's understood close to 100 more vaccinations were administered in the two communities.

Two men sit in the cab of a ute, wearing masks.
Purple House Old People's Program workers Freddie Williams and Ericson White deliver meals to clients.(ABC News: Samantha Jonscher)

Fears for the 'old people' and young

The crisis has made services like the Old People's Program all the more important as elderly residents isolate. 

On Tuesday, Mr Williams and Mr White donned masks as they drove around streets that were much quieter than usual.

"People are at home, sitting down – probably too hot, and this COVID too," Mr Williams said.

A man carrying two large brown paper bags walks towards a house.
Purple House Old People's Program worker Ericson White delivers a meal.(ABC News: Samantha Jonscher)

Some people left the community weeks ago, fearful of the virus, he said, "but now, everyone is here" and staying home.

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"We're worried about the old people, and the kids."

Health workers have reported an encouraging number of children presenting to get the needle now that five- to 11-year-olds are approved to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

NT Health has denied reports that earlier this month, staff shortages forced the Yuendumu clinic to turn some residents seeking vaccines away.

Creating a 'safe place'

Next door at the Purple House Dialysis Centre, nurse Rohan Diflo's goal is to keep life as normal as possible for his vulnerable patients with kidney disease.

But there are now new precautions in place, including that each patient must record a negative rapid antigen test before their dialysis.

A man in a blue t shirt stands in a hospital-style room surrounded by dialysis chairs and equipment.
Rohan Diflo works to ensure his patients feel at home while protecting them from COVID-19.(ABC News: Samantha Jonscher)

"If we've got someone who we think [is] positive, we actually do it (a rapid test) at their house before we pick them up," Mr Diflo said. 

"And of course, [we've got] all the PPE and masks and everything else."

The pandemic has also meant patients have had to forego the familial support that is usually a key part of community life.

"They've all been great and they're all really vigilant with their family members coming over to their house; they stop them," Mr Diflo said of his patients.

"Usually, we have family members coming to see with people on dialysis … we've stopped all that, we close the gate once we've got the patients inside.

"They're actually seated over 1.5 metres apart, so the social distancing is already in place … so it's all running smoothly."

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>What you need to know about coronavirus:

Mr Diflo said the patients still felt at home while getting their treatment "because they all know each other, and it's a safe place".

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"They just come in and do their normal dialysis and we try not to make it any different."

The centre has also put measures in place to handle close contacts, with one patient this week placed on her machine at an increased distance from the other patients after recording multiple negative RAT tests. 

Purple House chief executive Sarah Brown said the patient was "overjoyed that she could safely remain in her community with her family" instead of facing the prospect of time in quarantine in Alice Springs or at Howard Springs.

A blue Holden Commodore wagon drives in front of a graffitied fence that reads 'Love! Whatever it takes'
The streets of Yuendumu are quiet as the community deals with a COVID outbreak.(ABC News: Samantha Jonscher)

But she said providing the service was dependent on the organisation's ability to access rapid antigen tests.

"Dialysis patients are going to be really susceptible to doing very poorly if they get COVID," Ms Brown said.

"So we need to be belt-and-braces and do everything we possibly can to keep people well … we really do need to test all the patients and the nurses each day before they get on dialysis."

A public health sign demonstrating how to cough safely is seen on a wall.
Misinformation and acute vaccine hesitancy in Yuendumu have made residents previously uncomfortable to engage with the issue. (ABC News: Samantha Jonscher)

She said sourcing the six a day required for four patients and two nurses was a constant concern.

"It's actually someone's almost half-time job at the moment scouring availability of rapid antigen tests," Ms Brown said. 

"Any dialysis patient we can keep out on country is someone who doesn't need to be in town and cared for by the government.

"So there's lots of really good reasons, not just social-cultural reasons, but also economic and capacity issues for us to be supported to have as many people back home out bush for as long as we can."

The NT Government said the lockout for Yuendumu and Yuelamu which was due to end on Saturday has been extended for a further five days until midday next Thursday.

View from over the shoulder of a man writing on a clipboard in the driver's seat of a car.
Freddie Williams' meal deliveries are helping residents.(ABC News: Samantha Jonscher)

Freddie Williams remains hopeful his community will manage the outbreak.

"Everyone is doing the right thing," he said.

"If we do, we should get through it."

Source : https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-01-15/yuendumu-covid-support-vulnerable/100758268

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