Covid is spreading rapidly in the majority Aboriginal town of Wilcannia in far western New South Wales, with at least 39 cases recorded in a week in a community of just 750 people.
Locals say the Delta outbreak could be worse than daily case numbers show amid long delays in test results and reports that swabs taken last week were not collected for processing over the weekend.
“We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and nobody works weekends?” Barkindji woman Monica Kerwin said.
“We don’t know how many cases are here, and I don’t think anybody right now knows. My son and daughter-in-law are still waiting for their test results and that was over a week ago.”
NSW’s far west local health district (LHD) has so far confirmed 28 cases in the region – 24 in Wilcannia and four in Broken Hill.
But the deputy premier John Barilaro told the media on Monday that Wilcannia had recorded an additional 15 cases overnight, bringing the total number in the small town to 39.
Kerwin said she was furious that the NSW health minister Brad Hazzard had blamed attendance at a funeral – which was held before restrictions took effect – for the town’s outbreak.
“I was gobsmacked that the minister can stand up there in front of national television rubbishing a small community,” she said.
“That’s a disgrace, it’s disgusting, and how dare he blame this on an Aboriginal grieving family in western New South Wales.”
Wilcannia has been exposed to the virus through government failure, she said.
Kerwin said the community asked the NSW government to close off their township last year, fearing Covid-19 would have catastrophic consequences for Aboriginal families in a place where housing is overcrowded and people have multiple health problems.
“And now the strain of this disease got more potent and crept in our community because of their negligence.
“There’s now police roadblocks on either side of town. But not actually when we were crying out for it a year ago.
“Our cries fell on deaf ears. And now Wilcannia is the hotspot in the west.”
Barilaro said the outbreak in Wilcannia was a “concern” but that there was a coordinated response under way.
“When you say it’s a mess out there, it’s not. It’s a very coordinated, whole of government approach, including ADF and Royal Flying Doctor [Service] over the weekend,” he said.
“These areas are impacted by the remoteness and what we do is focus whole of government. The issue around testing [delays] – those testing numbers come in batches. Are they out of date? No they’re not, they’re up to date.”
But Kerwin said the response has left out the community and that the information coming out of health meetings was not always coming back to the people affected.
“It is not coordinated, they don’t know what the hell they’re doing or saying here,” she said.
“They need to hear from grassroots people living in and amongst their mess that they have created. They do not have proper isolation for families that have tested positive.”
Umit Agis, the chief executive of the far west LHD, said the army will be in Wilcannia from Monday to assist police welfare checks, deliver food and supplies, and offer support “in a continuing effort to keep our communities safe”.
Emergency medical teams will arrive on Tuesday to provide door-to-door vaccination, Agis said.
Overcrowded housing is a major barrier to infection control in the township, local health workers say. There are at least six households in Wilcannia with more than 10 people living under the one roof.
But Agis rejected criticism of a decision not to isolate members of one family with multiple positive cases.
“It’s not a matter of justifying – it really is a clinical decision,” he said.
Agis said with several family members testing positive, there was a high chance others in the home had also contracted the virus, and it was safest to treat everyone as positive and for them to remain together.
About 200 Wilcannia residents had received a first dose of vaccine, and about 100 were fully vaccinated, Agis said.