Shepparton’s Covid crisis: why the Victorian regional town is so vulnerable to an outbreak | Health

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As lines stretched for hours outside Shepparton testing facilities and site after site closed its doors, questions were being asked about whether the town’s most vulnerable residents were getting enough support during this mini Covid-19 crisis.

The independent MP for the greater Shepparton region, Suzanna Sheed, told Guardian Australia she had received calls from elderly locals who were “devastated” after being unable to get tested.

“There were 80-year-olds who lined up for hours and just couldn’t bear to stay any longer. They went home and rang our office, you know, quite upset because they had been at one of the high-risk sites,” she said.

Sheed called the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, to lobby for the mobile testing units used to reach those with disabilities in Melbourne to be made readily available in the regional town.

The state’s Department of Human and Health Services (DHHS) urged thousands of locals to get tested for Covid-19 after a Melbourne truck driver brought the virus into the town at the end of September but failed to disclose his visit to contact tracers. As a result, the coronavirus may have been circulating in the rural community for more than two weeks before it was detected.

Three people have been diagnosed so far with more than 400 close contacts asked to isolate and visitors to a number of hotspots urged to come forward for testing.

But Sheed said she was disappointed to see some of the new testing sites closed when lines became unsustainably long.

“It’s incredibly frustrating, especially yesterday [Wednesday] and even again today, to see them close. It sort of suggests that maybe more is still needed to be able to get through this,” she said.

Shepparton is a large regional hub that faces unique socio-economic issues that have the potential to exacerbate the effects of an outbreak.

The median weekly income in the rural city is nearly $100 less than the national average at $565, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. It’s also ranked among some of the most disadvantaged local government areas in the state.

Added to this, 27.4% of Shepparton’s population is over 60, compared to 21.4% in Australia and just 20% in wider Victoria.

Healthcare workers at a drive-through Covid testing facility in Shepparton
Healthcare workers at a drive-through testing site. Locals have been urged to get tested after a Melbourne truck driver brought the virus into Shepparton. Photograph: James Ross/AAP

As aged care homes have been open to visitors, Sheed said she was concerned the virus may have already spread inside.

“Things would just go pear-shaped in aged care almost immediately if there’s an outbreak there. The lack of resources we would have for emergency staffing is a worry and we still have people in those facilities working at multiple sites.”

Shepparton is home to a culturally diverse population, with immigrants numbering 14.85% and 11.5% born in countries where English is not the first language. The state government admitted in Melbourne’s second wave that it was struggling to reach linguistically diverse communities and this potentially added to local transmission of the virus.

“[One of the outbreaks] we faced in July was very much in the multicultural community,” Sheed said. “But because of that, there was a lot of effort through the ethnic council to ensure that a lot of messaging went out … I was assured last night that they’ve just adopted all that again right away.”

Shepparton also has the highest proportion of Indigenous Australians in regional Victoria, with 2.7% of its population identifying as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people, compared with 0.8% in the rest of Victoria – although this is still below the national average.

Sheed said a testing site had been established at the Rumbalara Aboriginal Co-operative to help make testing more accessible.

“I think there’s always a concern about more vulnerable communities, the ageing population, and people in aged care,” she said.

The call-out for residents to be tested was so successful Andrews confirmed authorities have begun handing out bottled water to those waiting in line to avoid becoming unwell while waiting in the heat.

Jeroen Weimar, deputy secretary at DHHS, said authorities had increased testing capacity to 2,500 to 3,000 a day in Shepparton and surrounding areas.

As of Thursday morning, 1,862 people were tested in Shepparton and a further 550 people had been tested in the nearby towns of Kyabram, Cobram and Numurkah. In good news so far, 350 test results had been received, all of which were negative.

People queue at the Goulburn Valley Health-Mcintosh Covid testing facility in Shepparton
People queue at the Goulburn Valley Health-Mcintosh Covid testing facility in Shepparton. Some sites have closed when lines became unsustainably long. Photograph: James Ross/AAP

Prof Lisa Bourke, the director of the University of Melbourne’s department of rural health, is based in Shepparton. She said lockdowns had already caused many people in the region to lose work.

“A lot of people on casual jobs have lost their job and so it’s a matter of ensuring that we can look after people and people have the basics.”

But, she said, like many regional communities, Shepparton had extremely strong social support networks already in place that could help beat a Covid-19 outbreak.

“There’s been a lot of work done right around the community from our human service organisations and not-for-profits, our local council, and even just neighbours. The stories of people helping other people are quite remarkable.”

Hafta Ichi
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Shepparton’s Covid crisis: why the Victorian regional town is so vulnerable to an outbreak | Health

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