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, asking questions about why the COVID-19 vaccine is important to the safety of communities and they symptoms of COVID-19.


Mary G: Hello Everybody, it’s me, Mary G mind you.  You know this COVID thing as of 19th of September 2021, there’s been over 2300 confirmed cases of COVID 19 reported in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.  This represents approximately 3% of all confirmed cases.  The spike in cases this year has been caused by regional outbreaks, mainly in New South Wales.  As of September 2021, more than 247,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people 16 years and over have received at least one dose of a COVID 19 vaccine. That’s over 42% of the eligible population. And over 149,000 have received their second dose, which is about over 25%.  In addition, over 12,000 people aged 12 to 15 years have received their first vaccination dose, mind you.  And of course, we’re gonna talk to a special lady about current vaccination status in the Kimberley, the need for urgency for people to come forward for a vaccination, a bit of a Q&A regarding safety and effectiveness of the vaccine in preventing serious illness and deaths, how health workers monitor patients for reactions to the vaccine. 

I’m talking now to a lovely lady, the Chair of the Aboriginal Health Council of WA and CEO of the Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Services, her name is Vicki O’Donnell mind you.

M: Hello Darling, how are ya?

Vicki O'Donnell: I’m good thank you, how are you Mary G?

M: I’m good, I’m very good – do you reckon I’m still looking good?

V: Oh, beautiful.

M: Yeah, every woman gotta get over that, don’t they?

V: Hmmm.

M: You not jealous of anything of me?

V: Could be a little.

M: Yeah? What is it - your husband?

V: Could be my husband, could be that you’ve go such a beautiful voice too.

M: O thank you Darling. Whaddayow! Anyway, let’s get on with this – Western Australia and the Kimberley have been champions at keeping this virus out.  Debate in other places is now measuring by how well protected we are, how well are we going with vaccinations?

V: Look I think our vaccination rates currently, right now if you ask me across, when you compare us to the rest of Australia are very low but there are pockets across Western Australia that have very high vaccination rates. So if I look at places like, ah if you look at the Kimberley for example, we currently in our population within our world, within Aboriginal medical services world, we’ve vaccinated 35% with first vaccinations and 20% with second vaccinations. But if you look at the whole of the Kimberley the number is a little bit higher. But we’ve got a long way to go. But there are pockets in the Kimberley, Beagle Bay for example, who have had 100% vaccination rates for first doses.

M: Why is that why is Beagle Bay so successful?

V: Well look I think Beagle Bay is so successful because part of that’s talking to the community before we went out there on the vaccination day and having the community people and community Council being part of the process, makes a big difference.

M: There you go it’s not a magic formula is it, really?

V: It isn’t.

M: And this thing Delta the variant, how has it changed things?

V: If you compare to last year, when we had COVID last year, I think the difference between Delta is you only have to walk past someone, you only have to… it's a fleeting affair, Mary G if we could say that?

M: Story of my life!

V: Story of your life. So if we think of it as just a fleeting moment where you walk past someone, is how you can catch Delta, whereas last year with the COVID it was really, fifteen minute close contact to be able to contract COVID.

M: That’s pretty scary, isn’t it?

V: It is.

M: Mmm, what are the symptoms of COVID-19? How does someone know if they have got it?

V: It’s very similar to the flu, it can be a cold, it can be a runny nose, it can be headaches, which is why we encourage anybody with any sort of symptoms like that to actually get COVID tested. Coz you can assume you’ve got the flu when in actual fact you haven’t.

M: Do you think people think that there’s no COVID here, I don't need to get vaccinated?

V: Most certainly I think in Western Australia, we’ve lived in a very protected safe bubble, in Western Australia, we’ve had a very good premier that's had closed borders with remote communities closed. But those borders aren’t going to close forever. There will be a stage where it will have to be open and you only have to see the news over the last couple of days where people from other states who have come in to Western Australia have breached quarantine. So you only need one case, and you’ll have a spread very quickly. The other issue we’ve got are religious groups across Western Australia with their strong beliefs around anti-vaccination, which has a huge influence in some of our remote communities.

M: Scary times. If COVID comes to Kimberley, why does it affect community more than other groups?

V: Look, if you think about, you know being here in Broome, if you think about, or even Balgo for that matter, in a remote community if you had one outbreak in Balgo you can assume that at least half the community is infected with the virus because we’ve got a lot of over-crowding, we do a lot of loving, you know hugging each other because that’s how we grew up, we’re one big family.

M: Especially sorry time.

V: Especially in sorry time, which happens quite often, every day of the week across the Kimberly. So if we had one outbreak in Balgo because a lot of those move between Billy and Mullin, you have high potential you got virus in there, you’ve also got a high risk that the virus is also in Halls Creek because they’re all connected. So it would be the same in Broome, if you got an outbreak in Broome you can guarantee you’re going to have a case in Bidgy and cases up the peninsula. So it’s not just thinking about one remote community you’re thinking about a whole region that’s affected because we move around a lot we’re very transient, we, you know have a lot of overcrowding in our houses and our communities.

M: Especially when you’re crossing borders and particularly in the Central part of Australia where people are practising lore.

V: Well we are coming into lore time now so there’s a lot of movement between Western Desert up into the Balgo area and across into the NT.

M: Wow. Mmm, can you still pass COVID onto others even if you’ve been vaccinated?

V: I am fully vaccinated

M: Yeah can you pass it on still?

V: I can still catch it; I can still pass it on. But what won’t happen to me is that I wont get as sick. As sick.

M: Yep

V: You may still feel unwell but you potentially wont be really, really sick when you end up in hospital or potentially like some of the cases for our colleagues and our mob in New South Wales who have ended up in hospital on ventilators.  So if you think about, um, an outbreak in Balgo if you think about New South Wales currently right now and you go back to March this year, in March this year we only had 152 Aboriginal and TSI people who had contracted COVID in Australia. We’ve now got over 3000 of our mob, all from New South Wales that have contracted COVID since March. And, seven deaths.

M: And how do the vaccines prevent serious illness?

V: So, the vaccine actually stops you from getting quite sick. It’s no different to when you take your influenza needle, that you have every year, no different to when we have our babies and we give them mumps needles and measles needles and all those other needles – its to stop us getting really sick and catching a very risky virus that potentially leads to death.

M: Can we talk about actually getting vaccinated? Does it hurt? I mean I’ve had my first shot – what are the side effects?

V: There are some side effects you can feel a little unwell, you can feel like you’ve got the ‘flu, you may end up with a bit of a headache, you could end up with some sore muscles, they are all the same symptoms that you could get if you had the flu needle. Generally, what we tell people is to rest up, if you’ve got symptoms other than those symptoms there are numbers that you can ring to get some support.

M: And what about really bad side effects are they common?

V: No not that I’m aware of, I know that there was lots of talk around the AstraZeneca and the blood clots in the AstraZeneca but I don't know of any Aboriginal person in Australia who’s actually got blood clots from having AstraZeneca – I had both, my needles were AstraZeneca – the Pfizer one I am not aware of any real serious side effects other than your normal ones that you would get if you were vaccinated you know, with the flu needle and other needles.

M: Have known of people who were anti-jab and then get vaccinated? What do you think it was made them change their mind?

V: That’s a really interesting question, Mary G. When we had the vaccination day in Broome it was surprising the number of people that came in that were very hesitant about taking the vaccination. Because we had doctors.

M: So even though they turned up they were.

V: Yeah, they came even though they were very hesitant, they were not sure whether they wanted it or didn't want it. Certainly appreciated that it would keep them safe if they did have it. But they had the opportunity to talk to clinicians on the day and I remember seeing one of our public health doctors sitting under the tree with a couple of elderly people who had come and she spent 15 minutes talking to them, answering all their questions and they walked away and got vaccinated but what they told us was just to have the opportunity to have all their questions answered, to give them some relief, they felt very safe getting the vaccine and I think that's the bit we’ve done across our communities is giving the opportunity for our people to be asked those questions. We just recently sent a doctor to Balgo because there were a couple of families in Balgo who were very hesitant and she spent some time with the families and they’ve now got their first vaccination so its about alleviating people’s concerns and giving them the opportunity to ask the questions.

M: Well this thing the internet has lots of stories about COVID 19 vaccines some of them are not so true so where should I look to find the real story about vaccination?

V: If you want to look to find real stories about COVID 19 then go to the  WA health department website but for our mob go to our Aboriginal community-controlled websites which has got lots of information which is the correct information that will answer questions if you cant get the information there then certainly ring any of our Aboriginal Medical Services in across Australia and Western Australia.

M: Not everyone in community have the internet, who can I talk to if I just want to have a yarn?

V: We’ve got champion clinics and we don't have clinics all across Western Australia but where WACHS have clinics they have ramped up their clinics for people to be able to talk to people. There are a number of services across WA that you can get some responses to and if you can’t, for our mob certainly ring ACQUA which is our state affiliate and they’ll point you in the right direction to have your questions answered.

M: How do you get vaccinated? Where do you go?

V: For me, I go to an Aboriginal Medical Service, all Aboriginal Medical Services in Western Australia have a walk-in system where you can get vaccinated straight away. And we’ve also got a number of “Vaxathons” across the whole of Western Australia that are starting, they started off first in the Kimberley.  Its not about just vaccinating our mob, because if we are 100% vaccinated for our mob and everybody else was only 40% then we would still have a problem.  So the message now is about vaccinating a whole community and vaccinating a whole town and that’s everybody in the whole town. So the Vaxathons that are running across Western Australia that are now starting in Queensland I think next week they’ve taken the same blueprint that we’ve done in Broome and starting to vaccinate everyone – so having a joint Vaxathon with your partners and anyone who comes through you vaccinate – 12 and up.

M: What about private practises and hospitals?

V: Private practises there are some that vaccinate not all private practises do vaccinations, all hospitals in Western Australia vaccinate. For the WA Health Department I think that there’s an appointment system that you go online to do. But for our mob in particular you can go to any Aboriginal Medical Service.

M: If you had one single thing to say to our community about COVID 19 vaccinations what would that be?

V: My one message would be please get vaccinated because if you don’t you then create illness if you contract it towards your family your uncles your aunties ah, what we need is we need whole communities vaccinated for us all to be safe. We don't want to get in a situation where we have an outbreak particularly like New South Wales and for us in Western Australia its more critical because we have much more remote communities with potential for our mob to pass away if they get it bad. So I would encourage everybody to be vaccinated.

M: And generally, people don't have a problem getting the ‘flu vaccination, but they have problems with the COVID, especially our people? Anything you want to add to that?

V: I think the hesitancy around this vaccine is that the vaccine was approved really quickly - but what people need to understand is that normally for vaccine it takes a couple of years for the vaccine to be developed. In the case of this virus, in particular or when COVID first came out – researchers all over the world put their tools down and concentrated on a vaccine which is why we got it so quick. And what people also need to understand is Australia has the most stringent regulations through the TGA around approving vaccinations and you have to go through a real rigid process before it gets approved. Which is why we strongly believe that the vaccine that has been approved is going to be effective.

M: Hmm, well Vicki O’Donnell, Chair of the Aboriginal Health Council of WA, and CEO of Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Services, thank you for coming in and sharing

V: Thank you very much, Mary G.

M: No worries darling, look after your husband coz you never know I might be knocking on his door!

V: Awesome.

M: Love you.

V: I will do.

M: Hee Hee Hee.

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Please note, this audio recording was published on 05 November 2021. Updated health advice was provided on 09 December 2021, recommending the Comirnaty (Pfizer) vaccine for children aged 5 to 11 years old. For more information read the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation’s statement.

Note: The National Coronavirus Helpline and Easy Vaccine Access service are no longer in service.

For information about COVID-19 support services and resources including information on booking a vaccination, COVID-19 vaccines, testing, and other COVID-19 services, please visit

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