‘Perfect storm’: fears for WA homeless people as data reveals low Covid vaccination rate

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Matt Jelonek/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Matt Jelonek/Getty Images

Exclusive: Homeless Healthcare audit of more than 500 vulnerable patients shows 32% completely unvaccinated

Vaccination rates among Perth’s growing homeless community may be as low as 45%, according to comprehensive data collected by one service provider, raising fears the vulnerable cohort will be caught in a “perfect storm” when Western Australia does open its borders.

The premier, Mark McGowan, announced last week the state would delay plans to lift the hard border on 5 February, a decision that sparked anger among some residents but was also greeted with relief by others, including some homelessness advocates.

Related: ‘Dying on the streets’: at least 44 homeless people have died in Perth this year

While WA avoided a crisis of Covid deaths, homelessness became a hot-button issue amid a spate of rough sleepers dying on the streets of Perth. Real-time data collected by Shelter WA says there are now about 500 people sleeping rough in Perth, and about 1,000 people experiencing homelessness overall.

Dr Andrew Davies, the chief executive of Homeless Healthcare, provides outreach healthcare services to many of those people and has carried out an audit of 522 people who were patients over the past 12 months.

The data, shared with Guardian Australia, shows 32% of those patients were completely unvaccinated as at 21 January 2022.

It showed 68% had received one dose and 46.7% were fully vaccinated. Only 6.5% had received a booster. About 40% of patients in the analysis were Aboriginal.

The figures make for grim reading compared to the statewide rate of nearly 90% of people aged 12 and above who’ve been fully vaccinated.

The Homeless Healthcare data will be sent to the WA government after it admitted last week it had not compiled figures on vaccination rates among the homeless.

The data was compiled by Davies, Prof Lisa Wood of the University of Notre Dame WA, and Matthew Tuson of the Home2Health research team at the University of WA.

“Two thirds (67%) of Homeless Healthcare patients have at least one chronic health condition, including high rates of conditions that are risk factors for Covid-severity (such as diabetes, heart disease, chronic respiratory illness and liver disease),” they said.

“The Covid vaccination rates identified in this audit are thus of immense concern, particularly given the mounting evidence for the need for the third booster vaccine dose for better protection against the Omicron variant and its impacts on health.”

Related: ‘Not logical’: WA needs more than border closures to fight Covid, experts say

Davies told Guardian Australia rough sleepers often found it difficult to adequately socially distance, isolate or quarantine.

This meant they could become a “source of infection for all”, he said.

Advocates call for action over ‘scary’ jab rate

Advocates say McGowan’s decision to delay the border opening means there is now an opportunity to lift vaccination rates among the vulnerable rough sleeper population.

Michelle Mackenzie, the chief executive of Shelter WA, said rates among the homeless were “really scary”.

Mackenzie said one issue was that although the government had established some vaccine programs targeting the homeless last year, there were also a “whole lot of people who are new to homelessness” now accessing services.

She said there was a need to re-establish clinics for the homeless as well as outreach teams.

“It needs to be built on what works, it needs to look at supporting frontline services who’ve got that relationship and trust,” she said.

Earlier this month, a trio of leading advocates also wrote to McGowan saying they had “grave concerns” about low vaccination rates among the homeless.

The letter was from the former chief executive of the Derbarl Yerrigan Health Service, Noongar man Ted Wilkes, the Ngalla Maya Aboriginal Corporation chief executive, Mervyn Eades, and veteran housing campaigner Betsy Buchanan.

Advocates have written to WA premier Mark McGowan sharing their concerns about rough sleepers.
Advocates have written to WA premier Mark McGowan sharing their concerns about rough sleepers. Photograph: Richard Wainwright/AAP

Jesse Noakes, a member of the House the Homeless WA campaign, said the government was right to have focused on the “threat posed to remote communities when WA finally reopens”.

“But there is an even bigger crisis looming in the heart of the Perth CBD,” he said.

“The most vulnerable community in WA will be caught in a perfect storm as WA’s growing COVID outbreak makes the recent border reversal moot.”

Davies said there were multiple factors inhibiting the ability of Perth’s rough sleepers to get vaccinated.

He said rough sleepers often had “competing priorities”, meaning if you had “nowhere to sleep then you don’t worry about being vaccinated”, and some were concerned they would have no safe place to rest and recover from vaccine side effects.

Hesitancy due to past traumatic experiences in the health system or distrust of government, and relatively low rates of Covid in WA were also a factor. Davies said there was also a “handful of patients” who had said they did not need to “get vaccinated as they were paid in the region of $1,000 to get vaccinated in someone else’s name”.

A WA Health spokesperson confirmed the department did not hold data on vaccination rates among the homeless.

The spokesperson said the department was working with “peak bodies and service providers to assist people identified as at risk of Covid-19 disease”.

Related: I’m not complaining that WA is staying shut. Like many, I’m just grieving for lost time | Calla Wahlquist

“This includes people experiencing homelessness, sleeping rough or utilising emergency accommodation, who often find it difficult to isolate and/or have limited usage of mainstream health services,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson said the department set up vaccination clinics with homelessness services in mid-2021. This was then transitioned to “a number of GPs services that specialised in working with people experiencing homelessness”.

“The program has facilitated in-reach services at more than 50 sites utilised by people experiencing homelessness and provides twice weekly information to a range of organisations about current state-run and other vaccination clinics, as well as partnering with community organisations to reach this population,” the spokesperson said.

“Strategies now also include a focus on particular priority groups via door to door services within areas where priority groups may reside.”

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