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Torres Strait faces significant Covid risk from nearby PNG as AstraZeneca vaccine rollout paused

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Christopher Knaus
·4 min read
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<span>Photograph: Brook Mitchell/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Brook Mitchell/Getty Images

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 when the federal government on 8 April shifted its advice to warn against the shot for people under 50.

More than 80% of the Torres Strait population is under the age of 50, according to the 2016 census, 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.

Related: PNG prime minister first to be vaccinated with Australian-supplied doses 'to show it's safe'

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. 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 ... so it’s incredibly important that we get as many of those folk that we know are vulnerable vaccinated as quickly as we can,” he said.

Bill Bowtell, the architect of Australia’s successful HIV-Aids response and a former executive director of the Pacific Friends of the Global Fund, said the situation in the Torres Strait was a direct result of the federal government’s poor vaccination rollout planning.

“The Torres Strait is paying the same price as the rest of Australia for a lack of coherent planning about supply and then obviously distribution,” he told the Guardian. “We know it’s difficult to distribute, but it can be done. Remote Aboriginal communities have been fantastic at sorting out how to stop the spread of Covid.

“Empowering the Torres Strait people will help a great deal, but you have to get vaccines to them, and you’ve got to spend money to do it.”

The Labor senator Nita Green is currently on Thursday Island and spoke to the ABC this morning. Green said the pausing of the AstraZeneca vaccine was the right step. But she said the question was now: what happens next?

She said there was currently 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.”

Related: Covid vaccine fast-tracked in Torres Strait as fears of Papua New Guinea outbreak grow

The 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.

“Our communities are small and with overcrowded living conditions,” he said, speaking before the AstraZeneca pause. “Just one case in community would spread rapidly, our people are vulnerable, and an outbreak would be catastrophic.

“Our people move around between islands and with the conflicting news stories about the safety of the vaccines, many people are not sure if it is safe, so who can say that 100% of people on Saibai are being vaccinated this week or Boigu next week?”

The Pfizer vaccine is less difficult to get to areas like the Torres Strait than first thought. Initial advice suggested it needed to continuously be kept at -70C. But new advice suggests it can be stored for two weeks in a normal freezer and five days in a normal fridge.

The Guardian attempted to reach the mayor of the Torres shire council, Vonda Malone, to discuss the current status of the rollout. She could not be reached.

But Malone last week told the ABC that news about the AstraZeneca vaccine had “certainly rocked confidence” among some parts of the community.

“I’ve been informed by Torres and Cape Hospital and Health Services that this will put a direct pause on the continuation and rollout of the vaccine as far as it continuing throughout the Torres Strait – at this stage, we’re not sure when that will occur,” she said.

“With the vaccine, it is something that we have to have to ensure we have that protection because of the close proximity of the Torres Strait with the looming cases in PNG.”

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.