Vaccine blitz launched targets the Pilbara — and many are hearing the call

© ABC Thousands of people have rolled up their sleeve to get the jab on the first day of a vaccination blitz in Tom Price.

Western Australia’s Pilbara region has some of the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the country, but the government hopes a series of ‘vaccinations blitzes’ will change all of that.

Since the national roll-out of vaccines, in February only 24 per cent of residents in the Pilbara have been administered their first dose.

Mining giant Rio Tinto has partnered with the government for a vaccination blitz in the townships of Tom Price and Paraburdoo, with the aim to fully vaccinate the towns’ eligible population of around 4,000 people.

On its first day over a thousand people heeded the call and were vaccinated.

Rio Tinto employs more than 50 per cent of the workforce in Tom Price, which is on the edge of the Hamersley Ranges, which is rich in iron ore.

Simon Trott, chief executive of the company’s iron ore division, said the mining company wanted to play a role in increasing the region’s vaccination rates and make them more accessible to the community.

“The clinic here in Tom Price is available to anybody, whether they’re a workforce or community members and ultimately that’s what we’re after; we’re after increased rates of vaccinations,” he said.

Based on surveys Rio Tinto believes around 50 per cent of their entire work force is vaccinated against COVID-19.

Hesitancy and misinformation to blame for low vaccination rates

The Pilbara’s vaccination rates lag far behind the total West Australian population, with 41 per cent of the state fully vaccinated according to government statistics.

WA Health Minister Roger Cook said it was time to vaccinate those remote communities.

“You’ll see more initiatives like this in the future as we’ve now moved from a situation where we have infinite demand but constrained supply to a situation where we need to … get to those hard-to-reach communities with the ample supplies that we now have of the Pfizer vaccine,” he said.

WA Country Health Vaccination Porgram Lead Margaret Abernethy said there has been some hesitancy in the regions.

“People have said they haven’t had outbreaks like in the eastern states, but I would encourage everybody to get a vaccine,” she said.

“It’s for yourself, it’s for your family, it’s for the community.”

Could mandatory vaccinations be on the cards for resource workers?

Mr Cook said he had recently met with members of the resource sector to discuss mandatory vaccinations.

“There was a high level of interest in mandating vaccines for the resources industry workforce,” he said.

“Understanding what an important group they are in terms of our economic situation, but also understanding they are a population cohort that moves around the state in big numbers.”

Mr Cook said there were public health risks as well, which the Chief Health Officer was looking into.

Mr Trott said Rio Tinto would fully support any public health orders from the State Government.

“We know that vaccination is the best pathway out of COVID out of the pandemic and we’re keen to play our role to ensure we get those vaccination rates up,” he said.

Mr Trott would not be drawn on whether Rio Tinto would employ a mandatory vaccination policy without the direction of the State Government.

“Our focus at the moment is on making sure vaccines are easily available so that’s what we’re here in Tom Price to do,” he said.

“We continue to access our policies on a risk based approach and will access our policy to mandate vaccines.”

Vaccination blitzes to continue

With low vaccination rates in the region, WA Country help seeks to deliver a number of these vaccination blitzes after a successful ‘vaxathon’ in the Kimberley region.

“We made sure that we had gone out to pretty much every town and every location across country WA and we’ve been doing that on a regular basis,” Ms Abernethy said.

“It’s great that we do have more vaccines to do this because after the holidays we’ll be moving over to Newman to do the same event and then over to Karratha and Port Hedland.”

She said it is important for the state to be prepared for a possible COVID-19 outbreak, as seen in the eastern states.

“We do see that the big port areas are risky and we need to get in and do as many [vaccinations] as we can in these big towns.”

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