‘Praying it won’t happen’: how Omicron could cut off Australia’s rural towns from essential services

Essential services in rural towns are under pressure due to Covid-19 and could leave locals unable to access pharmaceutical and banking services.

Katie Stott, together with her husband, pharmacist Fred Hellqvist, manage the only pharmacy in Dover, Tasmania, the southernmost town in Australia, servicing approximately 2,000 to 3,000 people.

“I’m terrified,” Stott says of the prospect of her or husband falling ill with Covid-19 and having to close their doors.

“If we had to close for seven days or more I’m really scared,” she says as the pharmacy not only is responsible for servicing the local nursing home with its medication but also making deliveries to the elderly and disadvantaged members of the community who cannot drive.

Stott says their pharmacy in Dover is one of about 350 small rural pharmacies in Australia that are a single pharmacist town, meaning there are at least 700,000 Australians living in communities that are at risk of losing their service if the pharmacist gets sick.

“We just don’t have a lot of backup. A lot of these bigger pharmacies [are] operating A and B teams,” she says. “They can bring a fresh team in that haven’t had contact with the other team if someone gets sick.

“We’ve just been praying it won’t happen but with Omicron it just seems like an inevitability that rural pharmacies are going to get hit.”

The ability to secure a locum to keep doors open is a “nightmare”, Stott says, as even the locum they booked in advance in order to take a holiday had to cancel due to becoming a close contact.

“I can just anticipate that it will be absolutely chaotic if we have to close for more than a day,” Stott says. “We’ll probably end up in a situation where people are calling triple-0 unnecessarily or going up to the doctor’s surgery.”

Stott is also the coordinator of the Rural Pharmacy Network, which she says has been warning since the beginning of the pandemic that the government needs to have a contingency plan if pharmacies have to close. But Stott says there has yet to be any commitment from federal or state governments.

“A, it’s getting a locum in the first place to keep the doors open, and B, it’s the cost of that locum … the hourly rate that they’ll be expecting to come into a pharmacy last minute, into potentially where there’s an outbreak of Covid, they can demand a pretty hefty rate and that’s not easy for a small pharmacy like ours to deal with.”

When Cathy Goodwin and her husband, Tim, the licensee owners of the Peak Hill post office, contracted Covid-19, the post office had to close for two days on the Thursday and Friday of the week before last.

Aside from mail, the post office is also responsible for banking services as there are no banks in Peak Hill. Goodwin says that, with a large Indigenous population, a reasonably large welfare base, and pensioners, there are many people in the community who don’t want to pay their bills online.

The post office also helps with administration of passports and tax file numbers, as well as carrying goods people need in emergencies such as printer cartridges, copy paper and mobile phones.

“We’re a convenience store without food,” Goodwin says.

The nearest post offices are more than 40km away in Parkes or more than 70km away in Dubbo.

However, Goodwin says, “we don’t have public transport, particularly the older community don’t have accessibility to go into other towns if need be. There is a community bus once a week or once a fortnight.

“You need the post office to be able to do those things and a lot of the oldies don’t feel comfortable going out of town at the moment because of the risks.”

Goodwin says she phoned her area manager the night she got tested as “I was stressing because I feel very very guilty about the fact that we had to close because I felt I was letting everybody down”.

She says Australia Post was “absolutely brilliant” with the area manager able to secure a worker from the corporate office from Dubbo to be able to open the post office Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday for reduced hours, until Goodwin was able to return to work Thursday.

However, she says, according to the post office licensee Facebook page,there have been other offices which have had to close for the full seven days because they have been unable to secure extra staff. It is a “big concern” among rural post offices as “most of us are owner-operators and don’t have staff”.

While Goodwin was able to get her PCR results within 24 hours, one of Goodwin’s casual staff is unable to return to work as she is yet to receive the result of a PCR test she took the morning of Thursday 6 January in Parkes.

Lauren, who requested her last name not be used, lives on a farm in Camperdown in south-west Victoria. She says “rural areas will be underrepresented in the stats” because of the difficulties accessing testing.

Lauren gives the example of her son, his girlfriend and her family, who all fell ill with a raging headache and a sore throat that felt like they had eaten razor blades. “They’re 99.9% sure they had Covid.”

However, because it’s impossible to buy rapid antigen tests in the area and the family were too sick to drive to the closest testing centre an hour away, and Lauren couldn’t drive them without risking falling ill herself, “eight people ended up being really sick and not part of the statistics”.

“After their experience, we have pretty much resigned to the fact that being tested now is going to be near impossible and when we get sick it will be Covid,” she says.

Lauren runs a dairy farm and says “if we’re not well it stops. It’s not like we have sick leave or somebody else that can come help.”

For this reason she and her neighbours have come to an agreement that “if we do both get sick separately that we will look after each other’s animals, making sure they have water and food, and that the humans in the house have also got food and water, and they’ll do the same for us.”

A spokesperson for Victoria’s Department of Health says “since October, we have increased Victoria’s testing capacity by 55%, with more than 260 sites typically operating across the state”.

“Rapid antigen tests have also been sent to regional services, including Barwon, to distribute to testing sites in the region,” the spokesperson says.

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