Victoria’s reopening could place the health of some vulnerable members of the Indigenous community further at risk, with the race to vaccinate them against COVID-19 becoming more urgent.
The state government is expanding Indigenous vaccination programs in Melbourne and parts of regional Victoria in coming weeks, with pop-up sites and dedicated vans to be set up to boost lagging rates.
Almost 80 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged over 12 in Victoria have had their first jab and 58 per cent are fully vaccinated.
Both of those levels are lagging behind the wider Victorian community, but higher than the national average.
“A bit of fear” continues to surround COVID-19 and vaccines among inner-city Indigenous communities and its origin is evident, according to Victorian Aboriginal Health Service chief executive Michael Graham.
“You’ve got to look at the history of this country and the amount of viruses that have come into this country … and the effects that has had on Aboriginal people,” he said.
About half of Victoria’s Aboriginal population lives in Melbourne and the VAHS van will target the under-40 demographic and bring the vaccine directly to homes, including some elders who are scared to leave.
With the health service’s data suggesting Aboriginal Victorians’ top two chronic illnesses are respiratory problems, and depression and anxiety, Mr Graham said some community members are faced with a difficult choice as restrictions ease.
“Imagine being locked up in your house for so long, and whether you’ve got a respiratory problem or you’re suffering some mental health issues, you’re sort of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’,” he said.
“That’s why we’re racing to get these vaccinations done as quick as possible.”
The vaccination drive comes as Victoria recorded 1461 new locally acquired COVID-19 cases and seven deaths on Monday, including a woman in her 20s.
Health Minister Martin Foley said the young woman’s death was not caused by her COVID-19 infection.
The seven latest fatalities take the toll from the current outbreak to 230.
COVID-19 commander Jeroen Weimar said two thirds of cases in the past week were unvaccinated, and half a million Victorians over 12 have not yet had a first dose.
“They are the ones who are far more likely to be caught up in our daily case numbers,” he said.
Victoria now has 74.4 per cent of its residents aged 16 and over fully vaccinated and is tipped to hit its 80 per cent target sometime next weekend.
Whether it does or not, restrictions will ease further and align across the state from 6pm on Friday.
The long-running ban on travel between Melbourne and regional Victoria will be scrapped, masks will no longer need to be worn outdoors, and entertainment venues, gyms and retail stores can reopen indoors to fully vaccinated patrons.
The Victorian government has also announced almost all coronavirus restrictions will end once 90 per cent of the 12-plus population are fully vaccinated, forecast to occur on or around November 24.