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Torres Strait nervous as vaccine is paused

Boigu Anglican reverend Stanley Marama gets his vaccine last month (Brook Mitchell)
Boigu Anglican minister Rev Stanley Marama gets his vaccine last month (Brook Mitchell)

CHRISTOPHER KNAUS
| The Guardian | Extracts

SYDNEY - The Torres Strait is paying the price for Australia’s poor Covid-19 vaccination planning, experts say, and now faces significant risk from the outbreak in nearby Papua New Guinea.

The rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine to vulnerable populations in the Torres Strait was complicated significantly last week when the federal government warned against giving the vaccine to people under 50.

More than 80% of the Torres Strait population is under 50 and the local health service says the AstraZeneca rollout is now paused.

About 800 locals are thought to have been vaccinated prior to the pause, according to the Torres shire council.

The risk from PNG, meanwhile, is ever-present. The Torres Strait island of Saibai, which has received some vaccinations, is only a short dinghy ride from PNG.

On Friday, the Queensland government announced five new cases in the state. All involved returned travellers from PNG.

There were 12 active cases in Queensland hospitals involving those from PNG and the total number of cases in Queensland that can be traced back to PNG was 97.

The deputy premier, Steven Miles, said on Friday that the risk to the Torres Strait remained “significant”.

“There are islands in the Torres Strait where you can see PNG from the beaches and where it is very common for people to travel for traditional trade purposes between PNG and Torres Strait islands,” Miles said.

“It’s incredibly important that we get as many of those folk that we know are vulnerable vaccinated as quickly as we can.”

Bill Bowtell, the architect of Australia’s successful HIV-AIDS response, said the situation in the Torres Strait was a direct result of the federal government’s poor vaccination rollout planning.

Labor senator Nita Green has been visiting Thursday Island and said there was no information about when the vaccination program may restart.

“People on the ground have mixed emotions,” Green said.

“They certainly know there is a threat there from the proximity of PNG but they also want to make sure that they are not put in any harm’s way or risk, so they’re cautious about the vaccine itself.”

Torres Strait Island regional council mayor, Phillemon Mosby, told the Guardian last month that there was no room for complacency in the Torres Strait rollout.

“Just one case in community would spread rapidly, our people are vulnerable, and an outbreak would be catastrophic.”

Movement between PNG and the Torres Strait is usually open and allows about 50,000 traditional inhabitants to cross a porous border each year. Such movements have been suspended since March last year.

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