COVID-19 vaccination – Mary G interview with Vicki O'Donnell

In this radio interview, Mary G speaks with Vicki O'Donnell, Chair of the Aboriginal Health Council of Western Australia and CEO of Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Services, who shares updates around the COVID-19 vaccination rates and the spread of Omicron.

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MG - Hello darling, how are you. How are you? 

Vicki - I'm good thank you. How are you? 

MG - Miss Vicki O'Donnell, OAM is a Nyikina Mangala Aboriginal woman from Derby and Chair for the Aboriginal Health Council of Western Australia. She was appointed to the Western Australian Aboriginal Advisory Council and tasked with playing a key role in state priorities including the development of an Aboriginal empowerment strategy, Closing the Gap, Aboriginal youth suicide and reduced incarceration of Aboriginal people in custody.  

Hello, Vicki, how are you?  

 

Vicki - I'm good. Thank you. How are you?  

MG - You're looking smart, as usual.  

Vicki  - So are you  

MG  - Yeah, it comes natural to me.  

Vicki - Oh, you're so awesome.  

MG  - I don't have to groom  

Vicki -Too solid.  

MG -Yeah. Anyway, Vicki, thanks for being available. Since we spoke last year, how are we doing in managing COVID? And what are the latest stats around vaccination rates?  

Vicki - If you look at the stats across Western Australia, we're doing really well with our vaccination rates. I think what's happened, particularly in the last three months is that the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has started to spread out into the regions. And certainly, we're getting large numbers in our regions across Western Australia with the virus. 

MG - And what about with our First Nations communities in WA and how the communities and ACCHS are responding, what's the stats on it all?  

Vicki - All our AMS(s) they're responding as best we can. We're providing majority of the support to our Aboriginal people across all of that, including Derbarl and Moorditj Koort in Metro who provide a numerous amount in the metro area and we can't forget them because they've probably got about 60,000 population in Metro. In the regions, we're providing great support with people living with COVID at home and looking after their well-being.  

MG - We're now into year three of this pandemic and you've been involved since the beginning, what has changed with our response with the emergence of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, late last year? 

Vicki -Not a lot’s changed, other than the fact that we're actually dealing with the real thing now. I think the things that we've struggled with, particularly going through real crisis is certainly food security, accommodation, overcrowding in our houses across Western Australia, and particularly in our rural and remote areas. And I think that's been really difficult when you've got a positive household, and six of your others are negative, how do you separate those that are still well against the positive one, and that's become really difficult, particularly in our rural and remote areas. 

MG  - It's a challenge, isn't it?  

Vicki - It certainly is.  

MG - I've heard Omicron described as mild like a cold. But is that, right? Because I see people are also still ending up in hospital and even dying.  

Vicki - And that's true. There have been some people that have died. I wouldn't say it's, it's certainly not as bad as Delta. But Omicron, you can get very sick. It's like the worst flu that you can get that can put you in bed for four days. So there are a lot of people that have got quite sick with the virus, but not sick enough to go to hospital. And that's generally because if you've been vaccinated, and certainly triple vaccinated, it's a lot milder,  

MG - Just like the flu? 

Vicki - Just like the flu, however, it's probably triple what you feel with the flu, so it can put you in bed, you get quite sick, headaches. And the best thing to do also is make sure you've got lots of hydrate, to certainly hydrate yourself because it does drain you.  

MG - Even if you're fully vaccinated.  

Vicki - Even if you're fully vaccinated.  

MG - Can you describe the typical symptoms that people experience for the Omicron variant of COVID-19?  

Vicki - Most people get headaches, certainly flu like symptoms. So you can be coughing a lot, runny nose, itchy eyes, all of those things that you have with the flu. And certainly if people are starting to feel those, they should go and get tested straightaway.  

MG - Can you talk us through the rules for people who test positive to COVID-19? 

Vicki - So people who test positive for COVID 19. So the day you test positive is the day you start your seven days isolation. Now if you're in a household of six, and you have close contacts in your house, and you test positive, but the other six are negative if you get through your seven days, and no one else's positive, then everybody else is free to be released or recovered from COVID. However, if another person tests positive, say two days later, the first person that tests positive is still released at their seven days, the second person still has to stay in isolation for their seven days. So some people think that if you test positive and then the next person in your household test positive two days later that everybody has to stay in the household, which is actually not true.  

MG - And understand this whole isolation period varies from state to state. So you're referring to Western Australia? 

Vicki - Western Australia,  

MG -So people in other states, they just got to contact their state health service for more information?  

Vicki - Yeah, so one of the things that's happening in Western Australia is we moved, if people remember, when Perth started, get the cases, there was a lot of contact tracing being done, that's been moved away at the moment. So if you test positive on a RAT, it's classed as positive, you have to log on and register it and you have to contact your close contacts to tell them that you've got COVID. Out in our regions, were still doing a lot of contact tracing. But certainly, you know, as the numbers start to grow in the regions, we will move towards the same as Perth.  

 

MG - Scary times.  

Vicki -It is very,  

MG - How should they manage the illness?  

Vicki - Look, they need to not leave home for a start and stay in isolation for seven days across our regions and in a metro area, our AMSs provide COVID at home care. So you get regular phone calls, certainly supply all of the medications, COVID packs that you require to be at home. And Department of Communities responsibility is to provide you with the food, while you're in isolation. That has become difficult. It's certainly in parts of Western Australia, or probably all of Western Australia, that's become difficult because their numbers have risen so much, particularly in our rural and remote areas where it's very hard to get the food out. But care is always provided particularly if you're a client of an AMS, you will get your regular visits we've put on SEWB (social and emotional wellbeing) staff, you know to look after your well being and also medication and doctors and Telehealth gets provided while you're at home.  

MG - And on that question, or point you just made. How is your organisation coping?  

Vicki - Look in the Kimberley, our organisation in the Kimberley is probably stretched to the limit. We've got response, clinical teams out in four of our remote communities at the moment. It's basically COVID at the moment is in the West Kimberley, but it will slowly spread to the East Kimberley and you'll see a number start to climb in the next couple of weeks. So it's about sharing our resources between all of our partner organisations, for us to get through it. Because to be honest, we don't have a team of clinical people that are gonna come from Perth to help us, so we need to be looking after ourrself in the Kimberley in our regions, and working well with our partners,  

MG - What support can we give households who are isolating? 

Vicki - We just need to make sure they've got their medicines need to make sure that we’re ringing in daily, you know that they're well, we provide them with pulse oximeters so they can measure their pulse and their oxygen levels, because that's one of the things that you look at when you're when you've got a virus. Provide them with the sanitisers and the wipes and all of those sorts of things, but also make sure they've got food available. And they're actually hydrating themselves well, while they've got the virus. So it's providing all of the care that you would normally provide if you came into the AMS to a doctor that you actually provide for them at home, through telehealth and through phones.  

MG - Why do people who test positive need to isolate? How does it help the community?  

Vicki - By isolating it means that the rest of your family and your extended family won't get virus because we still do have a number of our Aboriginal population across Western Australia who are unvaccinated. We've got you know, still people who have only had one vaccination rate, even though our numbers are, you know, our vaccination percentage is good. We've still got quite a number. And the most important thing is also about our Elders, because our Elders already have a lot of underlying health issues. And COVID can predominantly make it worse for them with their underlying health issues.  

MG - Who is most at risk from Omicron? And what do we do to protect them?  

Vicki - Look, I think our Elders and it's something we've raised across Western Australia.  Elders are probably really at risk because they have underlying issues. A lot of our Aboriginal people across Western Australia also got very high chronic disease health issues, which, you know, once you get the virus doesn't help that, because you've already got all of those health issues. So that's about how we manage it. And I think most importantly, it's also our children. Because our children under the age of five, aren't vaccinated, and they can get quite sick if they if they get the virus.  

MG - And what can we expect with the progression of this pandemic? Will things get worse or better?  

Vicki - Look, I think for us, in Western Australia, particularly out in our regions, our numbers are only just starting to get higher. If you look at Perth, they're starting to decrease a little and it's like it's moved out of Perth and it's now starting to spread into the regions and the numbers in the regions will certainly rise. I think we have to be mindful that there is another variant that's out there, which is the BA2, which is a virus the same as Omicom but more contagious, still the same sickness. And we'll be fighting this this virus for at least another couple of years. But what we have to work around is how we live with it and we work with it to be able to maintain a normal lifestyle.  

MG - And will it evolve into something else as well? or .. 

Vicki - Oh, there's every, there's every chance that it will evolve into another variant. And you can see that unfolding, particularly outside of Western Australia, and outside of Australia generally starts in other parts of the world, and then comes to Western Australia.  

MG - Vicki in wrapping up as the CEO of Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Service, are our people taking this seriously? Are they getting the message and are they stepping up and taking,  taking this thing seriously? 

Vicki - Look, I think 95% of our people are, I think we still have a percentage, particularly of the young ones who don't take it seriously. It's very hard to isolate young ones. I mean, seven days is a long time when you can't go out and party and you can't go out and be with your friends. But it's about being much stronger with our messaging, and providing all of those services that are required for people who are isolating.  

MG - And is there any final message you'd like to say to our listeners? 

Vicki - Please, you know wear your masks, make sure you're sanitising. Keep your distance and look after your families and protect yourselves.  

MG - Vicki, you are awesome, darling.  

Vicki - Thank you, Mary G 

MG - You're doing a fantastic job. And of course, as a CEO of Kimberley, Aboriginal medical services, probably one of the biggest challenges for you in this era.  

Vicki  - Oh certainly and, you know, if we get another variant, I don’t know it stretches. It really stretches the resources but for us, you know, even in all around AMSs our staff are just awesome. And we'll go every step of the way to protect our communities. And that's probably where Aboriginal Medical Services across Western Australia play a huge role. Because we know our communities, we know our people, and we can get messages and we can support them much better.  

MG - Beautiful. Vicki O’Donnell Order of Australia medal - wow. That's a bit of accolades attached to your name.  

Vicki  - It is  

MG - And CEO of course, Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Service. Vicki, thank you very much for coming and sharing.  

Vicki -Thank you Mary G 

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