There are growing fears that anti-vaxxers on New South Wales’ north coast could jeopardise Australia’s COVID-19 recovery as the region faces the threat of an outbreak.
Byron Bay and surrounding areas are in an extended snap lockdown after an infected man drove there from Sydney before landing in a local hospital.
Although the region has picked up no new cases from thousands of tests since, epidemiologists say a significant outbreak is still possible.
“It is surprising there have been no cases linked to the man,” Burnet Institute epidemiologist Mike Toole told The New Daily.
“But we have seen examples of people testing positive on day nine or ten, or even longer, like we saw with the Newcastle beach party,” Professor Toole said.
Northern Rivers at risk
Were there to be an outbreak in the NSW Northern Rivers, Professor Toole said the region could be especially vulnerable as it is notorious for vaccine refusal and COVID denialism.
The region is home to many of Australia’s alternative lifestyle hubs, including Byron Bay, Mullumbimby and Nimbin.
Some have even dubbed Mullumbimby, 20 minutes from Byron Bay, as the anti-vaccination capital of Australia.
“Not only are they anti-vaxxers, a lot of them don’t wear masks or use QR check-in codes,” Professor Toole said.
In September last year, hundreds of people congregated on the Byron foreshore in defiance of public health orders to protest against government restrictions.
Protesters shunned face masks and social distancing, and held placards accusing medical experts, media and health authorities of faking a pandemic for financial gain or world domination.
Others condemned COVID rules they claimed were negatively affecting healthy people to save the vulnerable few.
Similar protests were staged across the country as part of the anti-lockdown ‘Freedom March’, but Byron Bay’s turnout was reportedly as large as those in Melbourne and Sydney despite its much smaller population.
Earlier this year, some Northern Rivers businesses went so far as to shut their doors to vaccinated people.
But vaccine refusal in some Northern Rivers communities is nothing new.
Australia’s anti-vax capital?
Byron Shire also has the lowest childhood immunisation rates in the country.
About 95 per cent of Australian children are fully vaccinated, compared to just 70 per cent of children in Bryon.
In Mullumbimby, just half of children aged five and under are fully vaccinated, which is similar to vaccination rates in South Sudan.
Some schools in the region reported that just 6 per cent of children entering prep were fully vaccinated.
Professor Toole said childhood vaccination rates were a good indication of vaccine refusal in any given area.
And with higher-than-usual levels of hesitancy around the COVID vaccine, many are worried some Northern Rivers communities will become an anti-vax hotspots, vulnerable to significant outbreaks.
“Any outbreak in an unvaccinated population is potentially dangerous,” Professor Toole said.
“Sydney went from two cases to more than 6000.”
Despite daily case numbers hitting a fresh record high on Tuesday, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian rejected calls for further restrictions and instead set her sights on widespread vaccination to curb the spiralling Delta outbreak.
But Professor Toole said that approach was “completely illogical”.
“Every epidemiologist has said that is the most ridiculous thing they’ve ever heard,” he said.
“With Delta you go harder and faster.”
Authorities expect Sydney will reach 70 per cent vaccination in late October. But the target could prove more elusive further up the coast.
“We might never reach 70 per cent vaccination in the Northern Rivers,” Professor Toole said.
He said authorities were “playing whack-a-mole” by refusing to impose tighter restrictions on travel.
“Without enforcing a ring of steel around Sydney, it’s just statistically certain that’ll it’ll crop in regional centres,” Professor Toole said.
“It’s too late now, the horse has bolted. Now it’s just cropping up everywhere. Dubbo today, who knows where tomorrow.”