The current COVID-19 outbreak among a number of Aboriginal families in the Top End has been described as "our worst fear realised", with some comparing it to the devastation in Wilcannia.
The first Aboriginal person in the NT tested positive for COVID-19 in Katherine on Monday, while the first remote community case - also an Aboriginal person - was confirmed in Robinson River, near Borroloola.
On Tuesday, Chief Minister Michael Gunner announced that nine members of an Aboriginal family in Katherine had contracted the deadly virus including a person in his 70s and five-year-old twins - the exact situation authorities have been fearing since the pandemic began.
He also announced that both the local hospital and the specialist Aboriginal health clinic, Wurli-Wurlinjang, have been declared exposure sites, with Wurli announcing it has ceased all services.
Although the vaccination rates are high in plenty of remote communities, misinformation and hesitancy means that some have vaccination rates as low as 25 per cent, making them extra vulnerable to the virus.
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CEO of the Katherine West Health Board, Sinon Cooney, described the current outbreak as "one step before our worst nightmare".
He said although the virus had not made it into the communities Katherine West services, it was a situation they were preparing for as remote community members travel in and out of Katherine regularly for goods, services and to see family and friends.
"This is kind of like the calm before the storm to some extent," he said.
"We've got a bit of time now to prepare. We've done extensive planning in the last year and a half, identifying ways that we can do things, but often it's not until the rubber meets the road that we can really test how those plans will work.
"It's devastating that all the cases so far are Aboriginal, even very young children, five years of age."
Mr Cooney said he was concerned about the impact of both Wurli-Wurlinjang and the Katherine Hospital being named exposure sites.
"Katherine's already quite a busy hospital. And if they have to isolate a number of workers because they were exposed, that's a bit of a worry," he said.
"We will offer whatever resources we can in town without, obviously, destroying our own resources and making sure that we can support them [Wurli] as much as we can, as well as the Katherine primary healthcare and hospital setting because we've all got to work together and try and contain this outbreak as quickly as we can."
He said overcrowding in public housing in Aboriginal communities would majorly impact efforts to contain any potential outbreaks.
"Overcrowding is most definitely a big challenge and what we'd love to see is that the inequity in public housing for Aboriginal people in the bush is addressed at a much higher level than an acute response to an outbreak like this."
NT Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, a Yanyuwa woman whose homelands are near Robinson River, said the overcrowding in the community could lead to the devastation seen when COVID-19 spread in the western NSW town of Wilcannia.
"This is another indication of the incredible challenges for First Nations people across Australia, not just here in the Northern Territory," she said.
"This is a case of life and death here unless families have an ability to be able to isolate in their own home. How can they when you have 15 to 20 people in a house?
"This outbreak is our worst fear realised - same as Wilcannia."
Senator McCarthy, who also revealed her sister was the person who tested positive to the virus in Robinson River, condemned the misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccination targeted at Indigenous Australians.
"The messages by people across Australia, negative messages in terms of social media that have discouraged people, in particular First Nations people, from vaccinating is completely disgraceful," she said.
CEO of the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance NT, John Paterson, also compared the current outbreak to Wilcannia, urging people in remote communities to stay put to prevent the spread.
"This is potentially our Wilcannia moment," he said.
"This is our call for maximum vigilance at a clinical and political level-but more importantly a call for maximum care and love for our families and friends.
"What we need now is for all of us in remote communities, as well as our larger towns and cities, to refocus on the simple issues we have emphasised from the first. Stay at home, care for your families, protect your communities.
"And do the right thing: get vaccinated as a matter of urgency to protect our Elders and Kids."
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