Palm Island authorities desperate to evacuate aged care residents as COVID cases climb

Authorities are using rapid antigen tests to screen travellers to Palm Island. (Supplied: Facebook)

A North Queensland Aboriginal community is desperate to evacuate its vulnerable residents and is pleading with state and federal governments to help as local COVID-19 cases climb to more than 50.

Palm Island Mayor Mislam Sam said the council wanted nine aged care residents to be temporarily relocated to Townsville while case numbers increased.

"The water is rising fast," he said.

"We need to evacuate them off the island as quick as possible because we've had a number of [aged care] staff that have tested positive to the virus.

Palm Island Mayor Mislam Sam has been urging residents to get vaccinated and tested via social media. (Supplied: Facebook)

Palm Island recorded its first six cases of the Omicron variant less than a fortnight ago while vaccination rates were sitting under 50 per cent.

Cr Sam said he had been in discussions with the Townsville District Disaster Management Group since New Year's Eve about the situation but said he felt help was unlikely.

"We will continue to ask the questions for assistance."

Queensland's Health Minister Yvette D'Ath said she was aware of the issue, but as the home was a council-run facility, it was a matter for the federal government.

"I understand the Commonwealth are working with them to possibly be able to relocate them to another private facility at the moment," Ms D'Ath said.

"I'm just not sure what the plan is from the Commonwealth perspective to support these aged care facilities."

Dozens of cases have been detected on Palm Island. (ABC News: Sofie Wainwright)

Federal Member for Herbert Phillip Thompson said the federal health minister had been informed of the issue.

"I've spoken with Minister [Greg] Hunt's office, and I understand his department is working with Queensland Health in discussion with the facility to explore options to relocate residents," he said.

Housing challenge

Cr Sam said overcrowded accommodation was another challenge during the Omicron wave.

"Some of the local health care workers said they found one house that had 17 residents staying in it, and all unvaccinated," he said.

While case numbers were currently at 56, Cr Sam said with housing arrangements, he felt certain there were "hundreds" of residents infected.

Low vaccination uptake had also been a concern for the duration of the pandemic despite a door-to-door service offered.

On January 8, Palm Island was sitting at 47.7 per cent fully vaccinated, lagging the state's current average of 88 per cent, double dosed.

"We would like to get to 100 per cent, but we just have to keep progressing," Cr Sam said.

Queensland's Chief Health Officer John Gerrard said he was concerned about the vaccination rates in some First Nation communities.

"We are actively pursuing measures to increase the rates," he said.

Infections rising

On Palm Island, Cr Sam said they were bracing for more COVID-19 cases, with Queensland projected to reach its peak of the Omicron outbreak during the last week of January or early February.

"We're just taking it day-by-day," Cr Sam said.

The council was so concerned about an outbreak, a temporary morgue was set up on the island earlier this month.

A temporary morgue was sent to Palm Island ahead of the outbreak. (Facebook: Palm Island Aboriginal Shire Council)

Palm Island police officer-in-charge, Senior Sergeant Dave Rutherford, said rapid antigen testing was offered to travellers at the ferry, barge station, and airport.

"The main intent is to give the opportunity for people who aren't residents to test before they get here," he said.

Senior Sergeant Rutherford said he felt those measures were easing residents' concerns of cases arriving undetected.

Senior Sergeant Rutherford said there had been no issues with the community adhering to social distancing, mask-wearing, and quarantine requirements despite low vaccination rates.

"COVID coming to our community has made it even more real," he said.


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