RFDS Vaccination Nurse Jodie Tayler on Galinwin'ku

Island home resilience: Combatting COVID-19 in the Top End

Date published

30 May 2022

On the remote island community of Galiwin’ku in the Top End, the RFDS and local Aboriginal health workers have been out and about in a rugged four-wheel drive, affectionately known as the “Vaxy Taxi” encouraging the local community to get COVID-19 vaccinated.

Located 520 kilometres north-east of Darwin, Galiwin’ku is only accessible by plane or boat and is home to a seasonal population of more than 2,000 people.

Since last September, Flying Doctor crews have been flying in and delivering vaccines to the community in partnership with Miwatj Aboriginal Health Corporation.

Hampered by vaccine misinformation and hesitancy within the community, RFDS Vaccination Nurse Jodie Tayler said the rollout was initially very challenging.

“The hardest thing when we first came in was changing ‘story’,” Jodie said.

“Some people were picking up messages on social media that ‘getting the needle’ was going to kill them.

“But we came in, listened and explained how COVID spreads through techniques, such as blowing bubbles. We had many discussions to explain that COVID was likely to come to community at some stage and that having this ‘safe needle’ would protect everybody.”

RFDS Nurse Jodie Tayler vaccinating patient on Galinwin'ku
Photo: RFDS Vaccination Nurse Jodie Tayler vaccinating a patient on Galinwin'ku.

Through embracing ‘story’ and spending time connecting with the community’s rich cultural beliefs and dreamtime stories, Miwatj and the RFDS made a significant impact on Galiwin’ku’s vaccination rates.

Together, the team devised a unique and flexible operation, preparing small batches of vaccines at the clinic before transporting them via road in a portable fridge around the island – in some weeks, delivering close to 100 vaccinations.

As they travel around the island, they are greeted by smiles, waves and shouts of manymuk (Yolngu for “good/thanks”).

“We’ll just drive around the whole community – people will yell out to us and tell us if they’re wanting the vaccination,” Jodie said.

"We’ll just pull up and vaccinate on the road, wherever we are."

For many Yolngu people who live in Galiwin’ku, English is not their first language and is rarely the primary language spoken at home.

This is where Miwatj Environmental Health Worker, Brando Yambalpal, has been helping deliver public health messages, driving around the community with an address book to help the RFDS spread information in the local Yolngu language.

Born and raised in Galiwin’ku, you will not find a person more passionate about the island community.

“We are working hard to help the people in the community working side-by-side with the Royal Flying Doctor Service,” Brando said.

“Helping people understand and encouraging people to get the vaccine – to make a better place, a better community for the people to live and work.”

Miwatj Environmental Health Worker, Brando Yambalpal
Photo: Miwatj Environmental Health Worker, Brando Yambalpal.

Since working to change the narrative, the RFDS has seen vaccination rates turn around in Galiwin’ku and the Miwatj health region.

The protection arrived just in time. After dodging the pandemic for the first couple of years, COVID-19 began rapidly spreading through Galiwin’ku and surrounding Arnhem Land communities – mainly due to the seasonal and transient population.

RFDS Vaccination Nurse Tash Ford said by March 2022, first-dose rates in the island community were at 80 per cent, with 70 per cent of residents having had their second dose.

“Obviously as time goes on, more people are getting vaccinated,” she said.

“The Yolngu people are amazing – they’re warm, they’re welcoming and it really is a privilege to not only be invited but warmly greeted.”

As RFDS crews continue to spend time on country, the current focus is on delivering boosters to help protect the community from developing COVID-19 variants.

The vaccination journey has been “nice and easy”, according to Claudius Yunupingu, a Galiwin’ku resident who works at the local one-stop shop.

“I’ve got three vaccines and that helps protect me and my family,” he said.

“It’s good to have them here – the Royal Flying Doctor Service.”

Galiwin'ku resident Claudius Yunupingu
Photo: Galiwin'ku resident Claudius Yunupingu.

The RFDS has been working hard to support the Northern Territory’s health system to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

After a request from the Territory Emergency Operations Centre in November 2021, RFDS crews have been airlifting close contacts and COVID-positive patients from regional and remote locations across the NT.

RFDS Darwin Operations Manager Sam Bennett said the Flying Doctor conducted 142 flights, evacuating a total of 885 patients in the first three months of 2022.

“When we joined the COVID-19 effort, we really had to innovate and adapt to a new service delivery model to help slow the spread,” she said. 

“Due to overcrowding in many remote households, many patients can’t adequately isolate in their community and are vulnerable to contracting the virus.”

Partnering with Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations (ACCHOs) and the NT Cattlemen’s Association, the Flying Doctor has delivered more than 4,500 vaccines to remote communities in the NT to date.

In January, RFDS crews delivered 80,000 rapid antigen test (RAT) kits to more than 20 remote communities, and in March, administered our first Sotrovimab COVID-19 treatment via intravenous infusion in the Top End.

Sotrovimab is a “monoclonal antibody treatment” designed to mimic the natural antibodies produced by the immune system when defending itself against diseases, enabling people to safely isolate and recover from COVID-19 on country.

“These communities are extraordinarily remote and they just don’t have access to services and the vaccines,” Sam said.

“Our partnership with NT Health and ACCHOs is stronger than ever, working with them to better understand current and future needs.”

Getting vaccines to community
Photo: Getting vaccines to remote communities is a logistically challenging task.