How Norfolk Island and its limited health care system are struggling with its first COVID-19 outbreak

Picturesque Norfolk Island has to do with its first outbreak of COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began, which has posed challenges for the isolated community.

The eruption has also proved to be the first test for the Queensland government, which took over the island’s health and education services from New South Wales earlier this year.

An external territory of Australia, Norfolk Island is located about 1,600 kilometers east of mainland New South Wales in the South Pacific, between New Zealand and New Caledonia.

About 2,000 people live on the island, which boasts stunning natural beauty and a rich colonial history.

Norfolk Island was the first Australian community to close its borders in March 2020 due to COVID-19 to protect its vulnerable community and prepare its small health clinic.

There have now been 65 cases of COVID-19 on the island since the first case was registered on 30 December.

How Norfolk Island and its limited health care system are struggling with its first COVID-19 outbreak
Norfolk Island, located in the South Pacific Ocean, has sweeping views and a rich colonial history.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

The island has an average of about four new cases a day, with 43 cases currently active, and a handful of patients are considered ‘high risk’.

Norfolk Island Administrator Eric Hutchinson said no patients needed to be admitted and the local health service had managed after nearly two years to prepare.

“I think it was inevitable that it was going to happen at some point,” he said.

“There’s no one in the hospital, and I’m guessing that’s the metric we’re increasingly looking at in terms of whether the health care system can sustain itself or not.”

The island’s only health facility is small – with two emergency rooms and six beds – and is connected to a nursing home.

Portrait photo of Norfolk Island administrator Eric Hutchinson.
Norfolk Island Administrator Eric Hutchinson is the High Representative of the Australian Government to the island.(ABC: Claudia Jambor)

Sir. Hutchinson said the health care system needed an upgrade.

“The truth of the matter is that there is limited capacity here, it is an aging facility,” he said.

“Undoubtedly, it is a facility that will be replaced by the Commonwealth over the next few years, remembering that the Commonwealth has only been in charge of Norfolk Island since 2015.

“Before that, there was limited autonomy on the island.

“But it’s not at all a reflection of the really good people and qualified people who work in that facility.”

The acting director general of the Norfolk Island Regional Council, Phil Reid, said the biggest challenge was dealing with the virus on the island for the first time.

Phil in an office.
Norfolk Island Regional Councilor Phil Reid says the council has adapted to maintain critical services.(Delivered by: Phil Reid)

“With COVID arriving here, society has had to change their behavior and learn to live with the constraints of public health counseling,” he said.

“Things like mask wearing, social distancing and disinfection are obviously part of how we should live here in Norfolk.”

He said the council has had to revise its continuity planning and adapt to continue to provide critical services such as electricity, waste management and telecommunications services.

First test for new service provider

The eruption on Norfolk Island came two days before the Queensland government officially took over to provide government services to the island on January 1, 2022.

Last year, the NSW government went away from running Norfolk Island’s school and health system after the federal government revoked the island’s autonomous status in 2015.

The Queensland acquisition means the state will assist the Norfolk Island Health and Residential Aged Care Service and Norfolk Island Central School with the provision of services and curricula, and the Commonwealth will fully cover the state’s costs.

Students attending Norfolk Island Central School will transition to the Queensland curriculum and also have their school years delayed in line with Queensland, with semester one now starting on February 7 due to the Omicron eruption.

The exception will be years 11 and 12 students who will be able to continue the rest of their schooling under the New South Wales curriculum to limit disruption in their chosen subject.

In a statement, Metro North Health said it supports its colleagues on Norfolk Island to help with the current COVID-19 situation.

“Metro North Health has provided assistance to the Norfolk Island Health and Residential Aged Care Service Medical Superintendent, with daily clinical reviews of high-risk COVID patients and advice on appropriate public health interventions by a medical consultant for infectious diseases and medical specialist in public health,” a spokesman said.

“Metro North Health will continue to support Norfolk Island as needed, with mainland medical evacuations set to continue if necessary.”

Lovely views of two offshore islands over a lush, green coastline offering a grassy clearing and a forest of trees
Data show that more than 95 percent of Norfolk Island’s population is fully vaccinated.(Flickr: Steve Daggar)

Sir. Hutchinson said it had been a smooth transition, with Queensland Health on hand to help the island during its eruption.

“It has been a process that one would have liked to have had for six months [to prepare for] but there has been a lot of hard work done by a lot of people behind the scenes, which has brought us to a point now that we are ready, “he said.

“And we had to be ready when we unfortunately had our first COVID case here on Norfolk Island.

“But with the help of Metro North in Brisbane, doctors here on Norfolk Island have had access to specialist advice and support from Queensland since the first of January, which has been wonderful.”

Tourists with health problems are encouraged to reconsider traveling

Visitors to the island have been put on hiatus due to the eruption, but travel for tourists returning a negative PCR or RAT test before their arrival will resume on 27 January.

Sir. Hutchinson has appealed to Health Secretary Greg Hunt to assign some supplies of rapid antigen testing to the island, urging anyone with pre-existing health conditions to reconsider traveling to the island.

Norfolk Island city center
Norfolk Island city center during the first COVID outbreak.(Delivered by: Sharon Nicol)

“There is a limited capacity compared to what this island can provide at this point with the extra drain on resources,” he said.

The latest federal government data shows that more than 95 percent of the eligible population aged 15 and over on Norfolk Island is fully vaccinated.

President Sharon Nicol of the Business Council of Norfolk Island said rough estimates reveal that the tourism sector lost about $ 1.35 million a week due to the curfew.

However, she said she felt the right balance had been found with the visit break between protecting the community and restarting a vital economic driver.

“We are very aware that any longer break has an ongoing impact because our reservations in our accommodation, in our car rental, in our restaurants, such a thing, precede tourism,” she said.

“When people lose confidence in their ability to get somewhere on vacation, or whether they will be able to be released back to their own state or at home, then they lose confidence in that destination or place.

“So our job, or job, in the future is to make sure we still instill that trust in people who come in, with tourists and visitors who come to the island.”

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