28 Jan 2022

Māori health leader calls for targeted strategy for Omicron

11:02 am on 28 January 2022

Māori health leaders say something needs to be done to close the Covid-19 vaccine gap for Māori.

Covid-19 vaccination generic.

As of 27 January, only 22 percent of Māori have had a Covid-19 vaccine booster (file image). Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

With a growing number of community cases of Omicron, health providers are finding themselves in a race yet again.

Indigenous researcher Rawiri Taonui, who has been tracking Covid-19 since it arrived in Aotearoa, said the latest variant was yet to emerge in Māori communities but, like Delta, it was only a matter of time.

Dr Taonui said the position for many communities was perilous; as of Thursday, only 22 percent of Māori have had a booster. About 105,000 Māori were ineligible until March, he said.

No caption

Indigenous researcher Rawiri Taonui Photo: Supplied

"The overall vaccination rollout disadvantaged Māori because it was age-related and our population is very youthful, so it got pushed to the back of the line.

"Māori health providers have led a very strong effort to vaccinate Māori, but one of the issues that emerges is that cohort won't qualify for a booster until March."

That is when Omicron is forecast to peak, possibly with tens of thousands of cases. That has Māori health workers worried.

Dr Taonui said to address this, the government should reduce the gap between the second dose and a booster, from four months to three. But the government has said that decision had to come off the back of health advice.

During a visit to a Māori vaccination centre in Lower Hutt on Thursday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said "There are groups who had their second doses later in the vaccine rollout than others and we are mindful of those equity issues.

"But ... the decision on the gap for boosters is one for medical experts, not one for politicians. If they advise us to do that then that's what we'll do."

Jacinda Ardern speaks to media

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaking to media during a visit to a Māori vaccination centre in Lower Hutt on Thursday. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Those equity issues the prime minister mentioned have been well canvassed.

In December, the Waitangi Tribunal said the government's Covid-19 response had disadvantaged Māori - finding that health advice was ignored in favour of political decisions.

In Gisborne, Māori health provider Turanga Health is racing Omicron, trying to boost booster numbers, and turning its attention to five- to 11-year-olds who are now eligible.

Reweti Ropiha said they were seeing "satisfying" numbers of tamariki, and he expected to see that increase again once parents could get their boosters.

"The boosters and the kids have been pretty [good], we're averaging about 110-120 a day coming through the drive-through," Ropiha said.

"We've been going seven days since we've kicked off - we kicked off last week - and it really is head down and getting into those spaces."

But getting to tamariki required a unique approach, he said, one that may take time and a lot of awhi and kōrero.

In Palmerston North on Thursday, Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Mana Tamariki threw open its doors as a vaccination centre.

Its tumuaki, Sherry Centeno, was beaming afterwards. She said it was about creating a comfortable atmosphere for whānau.

"We know with Omicron coming in that's a real worry and a concern for our whānau, so we just wanted to help and support our whānau."

In the days leading up to it, the kura held a series of Zoom hui with trusted leaders and former kura kids who are now doctors, so whānau could ask questions.

Yesterday, it opened with a karakia from a Rangitane kaumātua. There was singing, cameras, jokes and joy. It was about creating comfort in a familiar environment, where everyone spoke their own reo, Centeno said.

It was an extraordinary success, she said. People who were reluctant changed their minds and came along; entire whānau - nan, koro, mum and dad - all gathered.

"I was so amazed at how happy these kids were. So now when kura starts back next week, we'll have a group of children who will be talking to all their mates, and then the parents will also talk to other parents," Centeno said.

Again, the community and whānau approach was breaking through. Centeno said some who went along on Thursday would likely not have gone to a mainstream clinic in town.

"Some of our parents and adults find it difficult to have the vaccination done in an unfamiliar setting, so you know it makes sense to have it here, where they're comfortable."

Dr Taonui said there needed to be a specific Māori strategy for Omicron.

There was none when the government announced its three-phase response to the variant this week, which he said was astounding.

"There is no Māori strategy for an Omicron environment and we need one, that is the priority."

There needed to be more pūtea for Māori health providers, and for communities to afford basic supplies when they are forced to isolate, he said.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs