As the Delta strain rips through Australia, a regional city is facing a fresh crisis as critical supplies dwindle, leaving residents on edge.
Residents of Shepparton in Victoria – around 181km from Melbourne – have been especially hard hit by the latest Covid outbreak, with more than 100 cases among the close-knit community.
More than 20,000 of the city’s 70,000-odd population are currently in isolation – around one-third of the city – as exposure sites explode, causing a critical shortage of essential supplies.
The city is now running out of food, with many supermarkets shut or cutting down their opening hours after being listed as exposure sites or due to having a large chunk of the workforce in quarantine.
That has also limited the availability of click and collect or home delivery, a situation that is becoming increasingly dire.
So far, there have been a string of exposure sites across the Shepparton region, with positive cases attending popular stores including Big W, KFC, several Woolworths shops, BWS, Best and Less, Mitre 10, an IGA, Westpac, Coles, Kmart, Aldi, Chemist Warehouse as well as a range of local schools.
As well as groceries, other staples in short supply include medications and baby supplies such as formula and nappies.
And in another blow, more than 450 workers from Goulburn Valley Health have also been furloughed, adding to the sense of anxiety plaguing the community.
The Shepparton supply crisis is now so widespread it has prompted Independent Shepparton MP Suzanna Sheed to contact Premier Daniel Andrews himself to beg for assistance, revealing the extent of the city’s struggle.
“I have sent Daniel Andrews a list of Shepparton’s critical needs. We need feet on the ground here in Shepparton so we can get essential supplies to our isolating community members,” Sheed posted on Facebook yesterday.
“Our community, as usual, has stepped up to this challenge and is out in all force helping one another, but this time we need backup from the Victorian Government.
“Our needs must be addressed immediately.”
Desperate front page
The ongoing crisis also led to the local newspaper, The Shepparton News, taking the extraordinary step of converting its entire front page to a desperate call for action, with the words “WE NEED HELP” boldly splashed across the cover.
The accompanying words also reflect the growing unease in the region.
“Our community is stepping up but with so many thousands of people in isolation, The News is today calling for government assistance,” the cover reads.
“Shepparton is a resilient and self-reliant community but with so many people needing support just for the basics we need to know someone has our back.”
An accompanying Facebook post sharing the cover announced it was “a call for assistance from governments, with thousands and thousands of residents of Shepparton and Mooroopna in isolation and exposure sites continuing to mount”.
“As GV Health chief executive Matt Sharp said … no city could prepare for this large a part of the population at home.”
The paper also revealed that one local chemist had five workers in quarantine “while demand for urgent medications to be delivered is soaring”.
Army called in
Victorian Health Minister Martin Foley promised swift action earlier this week, declaring extra Australian Defence Force personnel may be called in if needed – in addition to the 40 already on the ground – to assist with things like testing and compliance as well as providing support for those isolating.
“So, we’re working through all those issues with the hospitals, the aged care centres, the food distribution chain people, the whole set of support to make sure that people of Shepparton and the Goulburn Valley more broadly, get all the support they need,” he said.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s a challenge I know that the people of Shepparton, and the state of Victoria, is up to.”
Today, Premier Daniel Andrews revealed the army was being called in, telling reporters in his Covid update that “every part of life in Shepparton and across the Goulburn Valley has been impacted by the fact that many people are not at work”.
“The emergency management architecture will be in place but it will be in the main very, very simple things. Taking food to people’s doorstep. Getting scripts filled,” he said.
“I want to thank the people of Shepparton for the amazing way in which they have joined together, looked out for each other to fight this virus. This is special though, it is different than it was last year with so many people unable to perform key functions and that is why we are there to help out.
“There are substantial additional people on the ground today and that will build over time with public servants, people from all across regional Victoria.”
‘Rapidly growing cluster’
While Victoria recorded 80 new cases today, the state’s Covid-19 response commander Jeroen Weimar said that 18 were associated with the Shepparton cluster and two with the Royal Melbourne Hospital cluster, indicating the disaster would get worse before it got better.
“So a quarter of today’s cases are associated with the rapidly growing cluster,” he said.
“None of those cases were fully in quarantine but a number of those were identified as primary close contact.”
‘Going to keep rising’
That sentiment was echoed by mayor Kim O’Keeffe, who told ABC New Breakfast this morning that the city was in need of “immediate support”.
“We know it is going to keep rising but we are trying to make sure everyone is supported and people are doing their right thing, getting their tests done, isolating,” she said.
“Over 20,000 people in isolation, a third of our community. We are struggling with on the ground support. We have asked the State Government to support us further.
“We have so many spots in our hot spots that are closing. We have supermarkets that don’t have enough staff … The critical thing is getting medical supplies and food to those in our community, to try and get that to 20,000 people, some are managing and they have people that aren’t in isolation supporting them but we have had incredible support from the community, so many stepping up and doing all we can as a community to help those most in need at this critical time.”
And in a further sign of just how grim things are getting in the area, locals have banded together to provide assistance to those who need it most.
GV Cares, a Greater Shepparton Lighthouse Project initiative, has been established to help those in the area who are “in need of help” during lockdown and quarantine, including those who are “short on food”, struggling to access items such as medicine, nappies and baby formula or those who “need advice on how to access support”.
The group has been crying out for donations and volunteers to distribute goods.
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