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'We want everyone to stay still': APY Lands cash, fuel restrictions over COVID alert

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Residents of the APY Lands in South Australia’s remote Far North have been temporarily banned from withdrawing cash from ATMs or buying more than 20 litres of fuel after COVID-19 was twice detected in wastewater.

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A team of about 20 SA Health, SA Ambulance, SA Pathology and Royal Flying Doctors Service workers arrived in the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands yesterday and today to retest the wastewater and to provide vaccinations and testing for the community.

It comes after authorities twice detected COVID-19 in wastewater from the APY town of Indulkana last week.

SA Health told InDaily it was most likely that a person visited the lands after previously contracting COVID-19, but was no longer infectious and was still shedding the virus.

A spokesperson said “out of an abundance of caution”, SA Health would conduct daily wastewater testing across the region.

APY Lands general manager Richard King said to stop residents from moving throughout the lands and potentially spreading the virus, a temporary fuel cap of 20 litres and a restriction on withdrawing cash from ATMs had been imposed.

“We basically just want everyone to stay still,” he told InDaily.

“We’re reducing fuel so that people don’t drive from Indulkana to other communities, we’ve turned off cash so that there’s no need to be getting cash out and going to buy things.

“We’re just being extra cautious until we know where this has come from.”

The APY Lands executive board has also asked residents to limit visitors to their home and to only send one adult per household to shop.

It said it would keep the measures in place “for the next couple of weeks” to give SA Health time to retest the wastewater and to investigate the potential source of infection.

Wastewater testing has been carried out in the APY Lands since early 2020, but last week’s positive result was the first time the virus had been detected in the region since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

King said if retesting confirms the presence of COVID-19, SA Health would test all APY Lands residents and start contact tracing.

“We’ve now found it, which means one of two things: that someone had COVID previously and was in the community (or) someone who is active in the community with COVID,” he said.

“If it (COVID) is there, we need to start a process of just testing all the community and doing some contact tracing to see who possibly brought it in and where they’ve been so we can follow this up.”

The APY Lands was locked-down for much of the coronavirus pandemic, with only essential workers allowed in under strict biosecurity laws.

Since November 23, only fully-vaccinated people have been allowed to enter the region.

King said over 80 per cent of APY Lands residents are now fully-vaccinated, including most immune-compromised Aṉangu people.

He said young or middle-aged people were the least likely to be vaccinated, in part due to misinformation about the vaccines being spread over social media.

“There’s not too much concern considering the fatal outcomes from that group are very minimal, so we’re quietly optimistic,” he said.

“We’ve had two years to prepare for this and we’ve done all we can to reduce the risks, just like the rest of Australia.

“The fact that vaccinated people can transport it (COVID-19) means we just hope that our coverage holds and that we end up coming through this with a favourable result.”

The APY Lands executive board is worried COVID-19 could have spread into the region from remote communities in the Northern Territory that were impacted by recent outbreaks.

The NT outbreaks claimed the life of a well-respected elder, but they appear contained for now, with almost all the restrictions that were imposed in November having since lifted.

SA Health said it was monitoring the situation in the APY Lands closely and would keep a team of workers on the ground on an “as needs basis”.

Nganampa Health Council health services manager Brian Doolan told InDaily no one in the community had presented with COVID-19 symptoms.

He said authorities would conduct daily wastewater testing across the region following the positive results.

“It could be somebody just passing through,” he said.

“We’ve been on high alert early on, so in that sense it’s a good thing.”

South Australia yesterday recorded 13 new COVID-19 cases today, but authorities are yet to determine if any of those infections are linked to the Omicron variant

The cases include two children, five men aged between 20 and 70, and six women aged between 18 and 60.

Two acquired the infection overseas, five became infected interstate, four were close contacts of local positive cases and two contracted the virus locally but the source of their infection is unknown.

It brings the total number of active cases in the state to 64, including three people in hospital.

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