CHRIS SMITH: Welcome back. The one and only Rowan Dean coming up in the program very shortly. But as they struggle to stop the spread of COVID-19 across Greater Sydney, New South Wales Health officials are scrambling to get on top of outbreaks in the regions, where the situation is on a knife's edge. The state's Far and Far West are of concern, including the predominantly Indigenous community of Wilcannia, where dozens of residents have tested positive. Today, the Far West of the state had 40 new infections, with 25 of those in Dubbo alone. Dr David Gillespie is the Minister for Regional Health. Before he entered Federal Parliament in 2013, he worked for two decades as a gastroenterologist and consulted physician, spending most of that time on the ground in regional New South Wales. He knows this patch. He spoke today about the current challenges of providing health in the regions, and he joins me now from Canberra. David Gillespie, thank you very much for your time.
MINISTER GILLESPIE: Hi, Chris. My pleasure to be with you.
CHRIS SMITH: Yeah, it's good to have you with us. These clusters in Western New South Wales, and I should mention also in Victoria's Goulburn Valley, they are an extreme worry, aren't they?
MINISTER GILLESPIE: They are a concern, but we have got so many extra resources in there, both the state system with the hubs in Walgett and in Dubbo, the extra drive through clinics. We've got the Rural Flying Doctor Service that's been active for weeks, bringing in extra supplies. We've got extra GPs, another 5800 doses across existing and expanded GP clinics. We have got pharmacies being engaged. And we've got Australian Medical Assistance Teams that normally go off in disasters overseas. We've deployed four of those in those very areas you mentioned. And we also have ADF medical teams, five of them.
So, we've got a full court press happening along those Darling River towns and remote towns. They're all being covered as quickly as possible. Some have already had people in place, and expanding over 3000 vaccines in those little small towns that are the ones you've mentioned.
CHRIS SMITH: But we've still got several COVID positive cases. I just wonder, what have you been told by those on the ground? Can we expect, for instance, a death toll to emerge from the Indigenous community?
MINISTER GILLESPIE: [Audio skip] not. Some of the people are obviously very young. And as we know, the hospitalisation rate of younger people is much less than elderly.
But some of them will have co-morbidities, because we know that demographic do have a lot of diabetes and kidney diseases that make them extremely vulnerable. Both the state health system, the Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations, the general practises that were offering vaccines, this was their worst scenario.
CHRIS SMITH: [Interrupts] Well, why didn't we vaccinate more of these people in those communities?
MINISTER GILLESPIE: Well, look, there has been vaccines available in general practises and in community control long before this broke out, but there has been a problem with a general vaccine hesitancy around Australia. But it's been very evident, according to the people I've spoken in, in Dubbo. And I did work in Dubbo for three or four months some years ago, and in origin, all those areas that I was running down the Darling last year. I know these towns. There's not a lot of infrastructure in them. There's a lot of crowded housing in some of these small villages. It's just a perfect scenario. And the thing that's changed is the incredible infectivity of the Delta variant.
CHRIS SMITH: [Talks over] Yeah.
MINISTER GILLESPIE: But as I said, there's a full court press happening there now, and we will get it under control. But obviously, some people are going to, just by sheer statistics, going to be [audio skip].
CHRIS SMITH: You spoke about digital health on a major webinar today. It is a little bit of a two-edged sword this, isn't it? It's been a revolution during a pandemic, but potentially it's very superficial technology.
MINISTER GILLESPIE: Well, look, it's not the same as having your health care professional in front of you and a face to face consultation. But if you've got video consultation, it is pretty good for following up. It saves travelling many hundreds of miles, or thousands of miles in some cases for follow up after operations or chronic conditions that just need fine tuning. So digital technology is rolling out around most general practises and health care centres to enable it. Look, a telephone consultation, if you're well-known with your GP, you can sort a lot out. But like I said, video consultation is even better. But it doesn't replace it. But it's being supported [audio skip] Medicare items for it all.
CHRIS SMITH: The trick is, of course, to make sure that people have their own private, you know, hardware, which some in Far West communities don't. And the other thing is, you've got to make sure you've got good internet connection, which is not always reliable in the bush.
MINISTER GILLESPIE: You're exactly right there, Chris. We spoke about that today. There's three parts to this. You've got to have a patient that's happy to use it and the capability to do it. The doctor who's got all the equipment, and you've got to have technology that works. Now, there is satellite coverage in these remote areas, and all the state hospitals have a digital capability. And most general practises do, too. But again, it's getting used to it and utilising it. Yeah.
CHRIS SMITH: Dr Gillespie, thank you very much for your time tonight.
MINISTER GILLESPIE: My pleasure, Chris. Any time.