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Inside Victoria's battle to bring the coronavirus outbreak in Melbourne's north under control

ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
Sunday October 25, 2020
By Margaret Paul

Ahmed Tohow is one of hundreds of Victorians working with communities across Melbourne to help bring outbreaks under control.(ABC News: Peter Drought)

Ahmed Tohow spoke to nearly 40 people in his community on Saturday.

He has been knocking on doors, giving out information and re-usable face masks, and approaching families as they go about their shopping in the mall in West Heidelberg, in Melbourne's north.

"There was a bit of mixed feelings," he said.

"Because it took so long, the coronavirus, the lockdown in Victoria was taking a lot of time, so they were not happy about the new outbreak.

"But still, they were asking for information about where to go if they have symptoms, and they were also asking for translated materials as well."

He said the people he had spoken to had enough basic information about COVID-19 and how to navigate the system, but they were asking him for up-to-date information about where to get tested quickly, where to get support and the latest health restrictions.

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"They are anxious about the new developments in the northern suburbs, that's the question that came up, and they're keen to get more information about where to go to get tested," he said.

Mr Tohow has been doorknocking in Heidelberg West, where authorities have also opened a mobile testing unit this weekend.(ABC News: Peter Drought)

Mr Tohow has been involved in the Somali community for 15 years, but he has been fully engaged in educating communities about coronavirus since March, giving new information and translated material in Somali and Arabic languages.

"We also have to customise information based on what the Government gives us," he said.

The Banyule Community Health Service has clocked up more than 500 doorknocks and chats with locals in parks and shopping strips over the past week.

Its chief executive, Mick Geary, said having local health workers who were part of the community had been "a real asset".

"People are feeling really comfortable, having people that they know, people who speak the language, is a really important part of the process," he said.

He said there had been some challenges with making sure every message was being translated into the right language.

"There are lots of messages going out at the moment and that is undeniable, but the opportunities for that to be explained to people in the community by people who know them and have existing relationships is really important," he said.

"People want to know what to do and how to do it, people really want to get on top of coronavirus in this community.

"A friendly face, a pop-up space in places people are familiar with has been really helpful with engagement, particularly with testing."

Chief Health Officer 'very confident' of controlling outbreak

Mr Tohow has been doorknocking in Heidelberg West, where authorities have also opened a mobile testing unit this weekend.(ABC News: Peter Drought)

There are now 15 active cases associated with the outbreak in Melbourne's northern suburbs. The outbreak began after a grade five student at East Preston Islamic College tested positive for COVID-19, after attending classes on Monday and Tuesday.

Hundreds of close and secondary contacts in Melbourne's northern suburbs have been asked to self-isolate in the past week, and more than 9,400 coronavirus tests have been conducted.

On Saturday, Premier Daniel Andrews warned that the outbreak could put the brakes on plans to announce more steps out of lockdown, if the next few days of test results reveal scores of mystery cases in the city's north.

"I just want to caution people from, if you like, banking that tomorrow [Sunday] I'm making a whole series of detailed announcements about opening up," he said.

Mr Andrews said he had met with a number of community and faith leaders from Melbourne's inner-northern suburbs over Zoom and they were doing a "fantastic job" in helping authorities tackle the outbreaks.

"They're reaching out to literally hundreds and thousands of people in their own networks, whether they be faith-based or community-based networks, setting up telephone trees, calling upon people to come forward and get tested," he said.

Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton also praised the community's rapid response, which he said would help the state get on top of the outbreak.

"The response has been terrific and I'm actually very confident that we'll get control of the active cases that are related to this outbreak," he said.

DHHS testing commander Jeroen Weimar said the department had a "very close and very strong" partnership with the East Preston Islamic College.

He said community awareness around outbreaks was much higher than it was three or four months ago and the school had shown leadership through its rapid closure and immediate engagement with its community.

Mr Weimar said the other factor in the state's favour was the more assertive outbreak management approach being taken that saw testing and quarantine for both close and secondary contacts.

"That's why we're testing every single family member associated with that school," he said.

"We're going far harder, far quicker to ensure we capture this virus at the outset."


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