The Australian Public Service Commission has advised government employees who visit remote communities for work to postpone all non-essential travel immediately.
The new advice notes that high mobility of locals and a reliance on visiting and outreach services for many essential needs increases the risk of the coronavirus occurring in remote communities.
“On average, Australians living in remote areas have shorter lives, higher levels of disease and injury and poorer access to and use of health services, compared with people living in metropolitan areas,” the factsheet states.
“Poorer health outcomes in remote areas may be due to multiple factors including a level of disadvantage related to education and employment and other social determinants of health, as well as access to health services.”
The APSC suggests that employees consider the risks and benefits of their trip before travelling, and remember that they can carry COVID-19 “even if they feel healthy”.
It recommends workers postpone all non-essential travel to remote communities.
“It is important to maintain essential services in remote communities, so workers should balance community needs with travel risks … if the planned travel was an engagement visit or a consultation meeting to inform policy development, it might be appropriate to consider alternatives (video/teleconference, online engagement),” the factsheet states.
As some communities may implement restrictions to protect themselves during the outbreak — like the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara — workers should seek information and adhere to local guidance on restrictions to access, the APSC recommends.
The National Indigenous Australians’ Agency has a network of regional offices that can provide information on local requirements.
The APSC recommends that workers must not travel to a remote community if:
- they have returned from any international trip in the last 14 days,
- they have fever, a cough, sore throat, tiredness, or shortness of breath,
- they have been in contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19 in the last 14 days,
- they have been tested for COVID-19. Employees must not travel to remote communities while waiting for their results. Those with negative results can only travel to a remote community if a doctor confirms it is safe to do so.
The APSC notes that if a visit is essential, such as the delivery of Centrelink services or health care, then it might be appropriate to proceed with precaution.
On arriving at a remote location, workers should:
- wash hands frequently with soap and water, before and after eating, and after going to the toilet,
- cover mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, dispose of tissues, and use alcohol-based hand rub,
- stay up-to-date with the influenza vaccination (available in April), and other health precautions advised by doctors and employer policies.
If a worker develops symptoms after arriving at a remote community, they must:
- be assessed by the community’s health service using standard infection control measures, and be managed as needed,
- self-quarantine by eating and sleeping alone,
- avoid being with other people indoors, or in any other enclosed spaces,
- maintain at least 1.5 m distance and be outdoors or on an open verandah,
- wear a surgical mask when near other people. Cover coughs and sneezes if a mask is unavailable,
- wash hands frequently with soap and water and use alcohol-based hand rub.
The factsheet doesn’t apply to workers who live in remote communities, the APSC says.