As the Delta variant spreads beyond Sydney into the surrounding state of New South Wales, concern is mounting about the potential impact on vulnerable, unvaccinated Aboriginal Australians.
The Australian government had made Aboriginal people a priority group for vaccination because of the lack of health care services in the remote areas where many of them live. But as of Sunday, only 15 percent of Indigenous Australians over the age of 16 had been fully inoculated, compared with 26 percent of people in all of Australia.
The low rates among Aboriginal Australians are particularly concerning in the western part of New South Wales, which went into a lockdown on Saturday. Most of the area’s 98 coronavirus cases are among Indigenous people, Scott McLachlan, chief executive of the region’s health services, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Four of the cases have been found in the town of Walgett, where nearly half of the 6,000 residents are Aboriginal. There is a high prevalence of chronic health conditions among that population, and officials and Indigenous leaders fear that a wider outbreak could overwhelm local health care.
The Dharriwaa Elders Group, an association of Aboriginal elders in Walgett, said in a statement: “Many of our elders and others in Walgett experience health and social issues that make them vulnerable to contracting Covid-19. The impact on our community could be devastating.”
Ken Wyatt, the minister for Indigenous Australians, said that some were hesitant to get vaccinated because of news reports about the rare chance of blood clots associated with the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week defended the government’s slow vaccination efforts, which have been widely criticized.
“Australia is a very big country, and our Indigenous populations live in some of the remotest parts of our country,” he said on Friday. “It was always going to be the most challenging element of all the vaccine rollout.”
Dr. Kalinda Griffiths, a Yawuru woman and epidemiologist at the University of New South Wales, said the government had not been publishing information about how many Indigenous Australians had been vaccinated, making it difficult for communities to identify weak spots until an outbreak occurred.
“Now we’re on the back foot,” she said.
Experts have called for the release of region- and age-specific vaccination data for Indigenous communities.
Tighter virus restrictions were introduced on Monday in several parts of Australia. In New South Wales, it was the worst day of the pandemic so far. The state reported seven coronavirus-related deaths and 478 new cases. Hundreds of soldiers patrolled the streets of Sydney, which is in its eighth week of lockdown, to help enforce stay-at-home orders.
The state of Victoria, which includes Melbourne, tightened its lockdown restrictions, imposing a curfew of 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. and closing outdoor playgrounds. The Northern Territory, whose capital is Darwin, went into a snap 72-hour lockdown after the discovery of a single asymptomatic infection.
In other news around the world:
Hong Kong will add 15 more countries, including the United States, France and Spain, to its list of high-risk countries, meaning even vaccinated Hong Kong residents can return and face will face a 21-day hotel quarantine. It also upgraded Australia to medium-risk from low-risk. The changes, which take effect from midnight on Aug. 20, were to guard against the Delta variant, the government said in a statement on Monday.