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ABC News
ABC News
regional social affairs reporter Erin Parke

COVID surge exposes 'disorganised' WA response in remote communities

The WA government booked Karen Sebastian and her sons into a hotel to isolate while they had COVID-19. (ABC News: Andrew Seabourne)

Karen Sebastian breaks down in tears as she contemplates life after COVID-19.

"I don't know where we'll go after this," she sobs.

"Me and the kids will probably go squat at a house or try camp out with some family, if they'll have us."

The Broome woman has been homeless for 10 years, but was taken on a 220-kilometre taxi ride to stay at a rundown hotel after contracting COVID-19.

She and her teenage sons went into isolation in the tourist accommodation for a week as part of the WA government's pandemic response.

The ABC has confirmed hundreds of people are being relocated by bus or plane to a network of government-booked hotel rooms across regional towns in a strategy that's highlighted the chronic overcrowding and housing shortage in many Aboriginal communities.

The government confirmed it pre-booked hundreds of hotel rooms in regional towns for COVID isolation, but fewer than half are being used.  (ABC News: Erin Parke)

Karen's story 

COVID numbers are surging in remote areas like the Kimberley, long after the rest of Australia adjusted to living with the virus.

Karen and her family tested positive this month after visiting Broome hospital for an unrelated matter.

"We've been homeless about 10 years," she says.

"It can be real bad with mosquitoes and you can't cook properly, so we just eat noodles.

"It upsets me. I know it's not good for the kids."

 Broome woman Karen Sebastian has been squatting in empty houses or camping at relatives' homes for years while homeless. (Supplied: Karen Sebastian)

The Yawuru woman had public housing, but says she accrued big rental debts after fleeing domestic violence with her children.

Contracting COVID meant they had nowhere to go.

"At the hospital I asked for help, but they didn't seem to know what to do with me and told me to come back the next day," she said.

"So we slept on the street. I didn't want to go to the supermarket with COVID but we needed food so we ended up going to the shops.

"The next day they told us we'd be transferred here to a hotel in Derby."

Karen Sebastian says she's discovered relatives from other parts of the Kimberley are isolating in nearby rooms at the Derby hotel. (ABC News: Erin Parke )

Govenment says half hotel rooms are empty

The WA government in a statement said that hotel accommodation was pre-booked throughout regional WA in preparation for the peak of the COVID-19 wave.

“Dealing with COVID-19 and isolation requirements in remote areas poses unique challenges ... and the state government is prepared and is adapting as the situation evolves," the statement read.

"Rooms have been booked across the Kimberley ... and as at April 7 they were at less than 50 per cent capacity."

The WA Government has rented rooms at Derby's King Sound Hotel to house COVID positive homeless people. (ABC News: Andrew Seabourne)

The government declined to be interviewed about the program and the criteria being used to select people for hotel accommodation.

It appears to be prioritising homeless people and people from remote communities who have health conditions that require them to be close to medical services.

For example, some with fragile health have been transported from the desert community of Balgo to hotel rooms 500 kilometres north in Kununurra.

Hotels a short-term fix but tourism season poses a problem

Vicki O'Donnell, who heads the Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Services, says the program seems to be working well as a short-term solution. 

"We’ve pushed for people to be put into hotels where it's appropriate, purely so they can be looked after better, particularly for the homeless," she said.

"It is a difficult situation. One of the problems we’re facing now is that we’re moving into the tourist season when there’s going to be a lack of hotel accommodation, so how do we manage that?"

Vicki O'Donnell says some regional areas are entering their most dangerous period of the pandemic, despite the peak passing in metro areas. (ABC Kimberley: Vicki O'Donnell)

But Ms O'Donnell, who also chairs the Aboriginal Health Council of WA, has been scathing of the government's planning more generally.

She says the WA government appears disorganised and unaware of how the pandemic would play out in Aboriginal communities, despite months of planning meetings and assurances.

"I don’t think the government was prepared, and I don’t think the government understands the issues we have in the Kimberley and other regions with overcrowding and a lack of housing," she said.

"It's been highlighted during the virus and it's something governments have to address.

"It will be very interesting to see if anything changes from this."

Eighteen isolating in a house causing conflict

Some community leaders say the hotel program has been disorganised and poorly executed.

Complicating matters is that some of the people isolating are refusing to cooperate.

The Department of Communities has had to bring in security guards to supervise budget hotel rooms in Broome where COVID-positive people keep roaming outside.

Overcrowding alone is not deemed an adequate reason for people to be relocated, despite dozens of taxpayer-funded hotel rooms sitting empty.

At the Mowanjum community, about 70 people have contracted the virus in recent weeks, and some are isolating in homes with 15 or 18 people stuck inside.

Mowanjum Aboriginal Community Director Kirsty Burgu (L) and Mowanjum CEO Jenni Gould. (ABC News: Andrew Seabourne)

Community CEO Jenni Gould says she has been asking for some to be evacuated to a hotel.

"People's tempers get short, people argue, so we've had extra tension and more fighting going on.

"It's completely unacceptable and it didn't have to be this way.

"There's not much evidence of long-term planning. The housing situation has been known about for year, and nothing's being done towards fixing it when we've known about COVID-19 for more than two years now."

Up to 18 people are isolating in a single house in the Mowanjum community during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Supplied: Mowanjum Community )

Kirsty Burgu is a director of the Mowanjum community.

"We've brought this up over and over again with government but we didn't get answers," she says.

"We asked for some extra housing, even just something temporarily, so people who were positive could isolate safely.

"We knew it was going to run like a wildfire through the community and that's exactly what's happened."

WA Health won't say how many in ICU

Fortunately, COVID-19 hasn't proven as deadly in Aboriginal communities as had been feared.

Health experts say that's thanks to the high vaccination rates and weakened strain of the virus that's arrived.

As of mid-April there were 1,775 active cases in the Kimberley.

In the last three weeks, 40 people with COVID-19 have been be flown from the state's north to hospitals in Perth.

The WA Health Department would not say how many of these people had died or were in intensive care, saying in a statement that "the provision of manually collated data ... will not be provided at this time in the pandemic, as it will take clinicians away from their core role of saving lives".

Sudden removal from hotel

Karen Sebastian and her teenage sons spent a week watching TV in hotel isolation, with only mild symptoms of the virus.

It was a relief, she said, to have air-con, a comfortable bed and a stable supply of meals.

An hour after speaking with the ABC, she got a phone call.

A government-chartered taxi arrived at the hotel to take the family back to Broome.

It came a day earlier than expected and she wasn't given any notice.

The WA Government sent a taxi to collect Karen Sebastian and her children and return them to Broome as soon as they tested negative. (ABC News: Andrew Seabourne)

"We've quickly packed up and it's good to be in the fresh air," Karen said as she climbed into the taxi.

"They asked me where I want to be dropped off, and I was like, 'Ah, I don't have a home so just take us to the park'."

There were other COVID-positive people still at the hotel, she said.

She said there were people from all over the Kimberley, judging by what she could hear through the walls, and the empty food trays lining the corridor as she left.

Karen Sebastian says she does not know where her family will stay after leaving hotel isolation. (ABC News: Andrew Seabourne)

"There are a lot of us I reckon, and as soon as the COVID isolation is over, we're back to where we were," she said.

"I know a mother in Broome who's sleeping in her car with her kids, and others who camp in the bush.

"I'm just praying for permanent accommodation, a place to call home for me and my kids."

Will winter bring a COVID-19 onslaught?
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