Indigenous groups are calling for urgent support from the military and federal government, saying the Northern Territory’s COVID-19 pandemic response has failed.
NT Health Minister Natasha Fyles backed the request for more commonwealth resources to battle the virus in federally supported remote and vulnerable communities.
Aboriginal Peak Organisations NT warned of a growing emergency in the territory as the virus spreads to dozens of communities from Arnhem Land to central Australia.
Spokesman John Paterson said there are not enough health workers on the ground, and local health centre staff are exhausted and at breaking point.
Rapid antigen tests are also in short supply, with staff and community members not being tested.
“The result is that infected individuals are not being identified and are spreading the virus undetected,” Mr Paterson said on Wednesday.
NT virus response teams are also struggling to transport and isolate infected people, who are “being left to isolate in overcrowded and inadequate accommodation”.
Mr Paterson said the labour shortage had slowed the remote vaccination rollout in communities with Aboriginal-controlled health organisations.
“A surge workforce is urgently needed to deal with the current crisis,” he said while raising concern over “a looming food security crisis” due to supply chain issues.
“This is the time, when the essential elements of the COVID response are faltering, to enlist the direct support of the Commonwealth and defence force,” he said.
Ms Fyles agreed more commonwealth support was needed for federally supported communities and health organisations but said the NT had “plenty of resources” for its broader community.
She said all levels of government and Aboriginal groups had been working well together and the NT health system was coping.
“Our case numbers remain steady and where we can manage them,” she said.
However, Chief Health Officer Hugh Heggie admitted it was becoming “logistically complex” managing infected people in remote areas who required isolation.
The NT reported 418 new cases on Wednesday, with 48 infected people in hospital among 4065 active cases.
The virus has spread rapidly across the territory in recent weeks with hundreds of cases in dozens of Aboriginal outstations and communities, including Yuendumu in the Tanami Desert where 80 residents are infected.
It has also spread through Alice Springs with dozens of cases diagnosed in multiple Aboriginal town camps, health facilities for the chronically ill, an aged care home, Indigenous hostels and the local prison.
Health workers have also found infected rough sleepers living on Darwin’s streets and in the city’s sobering up shelter.
Communities in the Top End have not been spared, with the virus spreading to previously untouched communities, including Galiwin’ku on Elcho Island in East Arnhem and Alyangula on Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria.
“Recent outbreaks across different custodial and other centres serving vulnerable populations such as dialysis accommodation and aged care, is further cause for concern and requires urgent action to improve access to testing, isolation and treatment,” Mr Paterson said.
About 30 per cent of the territory’s 246,500-strong population are Indigenous.
Defence has previously provided personnel and support to the NT during outbreaks in regional areas.
Across the remote communities serviced by NT Health, 77 per cent of residents aged five and over have had one vaccination, and 69 per cent are double-dosed.
The figures do not include 29 communities with Aboriginal-controlled health organisations where vaccination rates are much lower and accurate figures are not made public.
Aboriginal Peak Organisations NT is a collection of Indigenous groups including Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance NT, the northern and central land councils and the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency.