Many infections are transmitted by people who don’t feel sick, or don’t show any symptoms of the virus.
The executive of the Central Land Council asked the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress what to do if someone who has been in a remote community
for a while catches the coronavirus.
The answer involves the people of a small hilltop town in Northern Italy that stopped the virus.
The NT Public Health Committee and the two big NT land councils have endorsed a strategy based on this successful model, as adapted by Congress.
What happened in Vo?
After recording the first COVID-19 death in Italy, the people of Vo blocked the few roads in and out of their town. Everyone quarantined themselves at home for 14 days and got tested regularly.
At first, more than 80 residents tested positive. Two weeks later there were only eight new people with the virus.
There were no further deaths in Vo even though thousands died in the surrounding areas. The people of Vo were much safer because they stayed in their homes rather than moved out into other surrounding areas.
Nearly half of those who tested positive did not look or feel sick. If those people had left the town they would have spread the virus without even knowing they had it. By staying at home they were diagnosed early and got the treatment they needed in hospital.
Congress and the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance of the NT have adapted this model for remote communities in the NT and called it ‘contain and test’.
Congress chief executive Donna Ah Chee and chief medical officer Dr John Boffa are confident the plan will also work here.
Ms Ah Chee said it’s all about stopping the spread of this highly infectious virus by limiting movement into and out of, as well as inside, a community if there is an outbreak.
“The reason for restricting the movement of people is so we don’t spread the virus, because if someone was to move elsewhere, and we don’t know whether they have or haven’t got it, if they have got it they’re going to spread it in another community,” she said.
‘Contain and test’ involves doing lots of tests to find out early if someone has the virus because if there’s one case in the community, there are likely to be more undetected cases.
Testing has become much easier with the rollout of rapid ‘point-of-care’ testing that lets remote clinics find out in under an hour whether someone has the virus.
What are people saying about the model?
Remote residents told Congress how hard it is to quarantine safely for 14 days in an overcrowded house, even if there is a yard.
“One of the communities we consulted with suggested that well-designed all-weather tents could also be provided to be set up in people’s yards,” said Ms Ah Chee.
The problems with the supply of food and other essentials that communities experienced during the lockdown period between late March and early June also need to be solved urgently.
Governments need to gurantee that people have all the support they need so they don’t have any reason to leave their household and community while they are fighting a virus outbreak.
“You can’t do this in a halfhearted way,” Dr Boffa said.
“It’s better for people in the community to stay put because if they do they’ll be tested, diagnosed early and they’ll get all the support they need.”
“Whereas if they leave they may keep going, not knowing they’ve even got the sickness, and spread it around other communities.”
Collaboration with local leaders is the key
Most importantly, Aboriginal and mainstream health services, Aboriginal organisations and governments will need to work effectively with each other, led by local communities.
“It is also a state responsibility to protect its citizens, but it requires local leadership to be involved, to go around and talk to people,” said Ms Ah Chee.
“We have buy-in locally, but both governments have to be on board with this strategy for it to work.”
Congress says everyone would need to work together to make this work, including the NT health department, police officers and even the army.
All will be needed to help communities if there is a future virus outbreak.
“We’ve still got time. It’s a decision of governments and the chief health officer,” Ms Ah Chee said.