Covid-19: Protecting vulnerable spurs vaccine takeup on East Coast

8:03 pm on 20 July 2021

Many isolated regional communities are getting their Covid-19 vaccinations before the general public because going back and forth would prove too complex.

Te Araroa is a small town of about 200 people near the tip of the east coast.

Te Araroa is a small town of about 200 people near the tip of the east coast. Photo: RNZ / Tom Kitchin

Around 16 percent of the population have now received at least one dose of the Pfizer vaccine, and 11 percent now have both doses.

In Tairāwhiti, people in the small far east town of Te Araroa got their second dose of the vaccine today.

Despite a good turnout, some residents in the first place in the world to see the sun are still battling against misinformation.

About 90 percent of the population in the area identify as Māori.

Latasha Wanoa, 22, said it was important to get the vaccine.

"We're very rural and we're isolated and a lot of our population are made up of vulnerable people," Wanoa said.

"We're made up of our elderly and it's just from our values, we make sure that we look after our elderly and our children. It's just really important that we maintain those values across everything, including Covid vaccines."

Three weeks ago, the roughly 200 residents of Te Araroa got their first vaccine.

Today, they visited Hinerupe Marae for the second.

They were not following the ministry's group system.

Ngāti Porou Hauora's Cara Lee Pewhairangi-Lawton, who was leading the rollout, explained why.

"We would've found our staff burning out with having to do the [Ministry's] vaccination programme as well, so we made a decision to have an open door policy so to speak, and invite whānau to come and be vaccinated and that nobody would be turned away if they turned up."

She said if the virus ever hit, it would spell disaster.

"Our services in Ngāti Porou and on the East Coast are very limited. We have a small hospital in Te Puia Springs but if Covid had've struck us here, we would've been unable to cope."

Cara Lee Pewhairangi-Lawton from Ngāti Porou Hauora by Hinerupe Marae in Te Araroa.

Cara Lee Pewhairangi-Lawton beside Hinerupe Marae in Te Araroa. Photo: RNZ / Tom Kitchin

She was pleased with the uptake, but knew it could be even better.

"For the first dose, we had about 62 percent of eligible population so we were really rapt as a first take. You know, there's a lot of information or misinformation out there."

Eighty-year-old Rarawa Kohere believed tangata whenua in the area could overcome the falsehoods.

"I think Ngāti Porou generally, the hapū and the whānau and the make up are a very practical, common sense focused people."

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Common sense will win out, says Rarawa Kohere. Photo: RNZ / Tom Kitchin

Marae trustee Kararaina Ngatai-Melbourne said there were still some people against the vaccines, and she was part of the group doing all it could to change their minds.

"The priority for us as a community, is to teach our whānau not to believe an opinion, not to be misinformed," she said.

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Kararaina Ngatai-Melbourne is among those trying to convince iwi not to be swayed by vaccine misinformation. Photo: RNZ / Tom Kitchin

Posters are plastered around the vaccination area promoting the vaccine, reading things like "protect our kaimahi" and "protect our hapū".

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Photo: RNZ / Tom Kitchin

"You already see there are posters around here today, those are all our own people," Ngatai-Melbourne said.

"Now when people came in for the first vaccine, they were drawn to those photos 'cause they're us. If we would've gone ahead with the Ministry of Health posters, it probably would've just been the Covid logo - and people would've just gone 'aw yeah - same picture we would've been seeing for 12 months or so'."

The message worked for local man Adeen, who had his second dose of the vaccine today.

"I thought it would've been the right thing to do, for the old people and the public."

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Adeen receives his vaccination. Photo: RNZ / Tom Kitchin

Ngatai-Melbourne said the rollout was by the community and for the community.

"We, our own people, we make the decisions on what sort of resourcing is going to go into our community."

A spokesperson for Hauora Tairāwhiti, the region's district health board based in Gisborne, said the "flexible" approach of vaccinations on the East Coast made sense, because it optimised the number of people vaccinated in the communities.

"It also reduces the risk of waste because of the complex logistics required for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine."

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