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13 August, 2021

Testing times

TESTING for COVID had Cairns area health system personnel working extra long hours under stretched conditions this week, as the city and Yarrabah went into a three-day lockdown, the result of a taxi driver catching COVID and being infected in the community for 10 days.

By David Gardiner

Gregory Mellor receives his COVID test from clinician Sarah Visser at the QML pop-up testing site on the Cairns Esplanade

TESTING for COVID had Cairns area health system personnel working extra long hours under stretched conditions this week, as the city and Yarrabah went into a three-day lockdown, the result of a taxi driver catching COVID and being infected in the community for 10 days.

Exposure venues in several areas of Cairns, including Cairns Central, Smithfield and Raintrees shopping centres were still being added to the Queensland Health list for contact tracing several days after the case was revealed.

Genome sequencing found that the taxi driver in his 60s and a marine pilot in his 30s both had the same Delta infection. The unvaccinated taxi driver is likely to have caught it from the fully vaccinated marine pilot when he drove the pilot to Cairns Airport on July 26.

It was the first time the region had been singled out for a COVID lockdown, and only the second time the city and Yarrabah had gone into lockdown since the pandemic began last year.

More than 5,500 COVID tests were conducted in a two-day period at pop-up clinics and other venues close to where close contacts occurred. 

The public were commended for coming forward to get tested, and Cairns and Hinterland Hospital and Health Service (CHHHS) staff were praised for coping with the sudden need for thousands of residents to get tested.

“Staffing is tight and is stretched but I’ve got to commend all of the staff; the health service, Tropical Public Health Unit, our contact tracers, the staff in our Aboriginal community-controlled health services and of course our private providers and GPs,” CHHHS executive director of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health, Joy Savage said.

During testing, staff were acknowledged many times by their executives for the long hours they put in, which saw hundreds of people tested by each staff member, the tester having to change personal protection equipment such as gowns several times during the day.

“Everyone is doing a lot of heavy lifting at the moment. We’re doing our best to rest people who are working very, very long hours so they can get their rest to be back at it at the next available point in time,” Ms Savage said.

“Obviously we’d always want to have more staff than we’ve got but people are keeping good humour and supporting one another, and it’s a time like no other for staff to be kind and generous to one another and it’s cool for our community also to be kind to the staff – they’re under a lot of pressure – there’s high volumes, and we really appreciate the support we’re getting from the community and the generosity that staff are showing one another,” she said.

CHHHS have also made testing of the region’s indigenous communities, including at Yarrabah, a priority and are strongly the community members to get vaccinated as soon as they can. Over the Cairns and Hinterland area, the indigenous full vaccination rate is just 16 per cent.

“That is good but it’s not where we want it to be, obviously,” Ms Savage said.

“Look, there is a bit of hesitancy. This latest positive case has obviously caused pause for people to rethink their decision and we’re obviously encouraging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities to yarn within their families and communities and encourage each other to find the facts, speak to a health worker, and get vaccinated,” she said.

With no further cases in the region emerging by Wednesday morning, Cairns and Yarrabah residents were given the news by Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk that full lockdown would be lifted at 4pm the same day, but masks will still have to be worn and other rules and restrictions will remain in place until August 22.


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