Taranaki DHB boss hits back at Māori vaccination rate criticism

Imogen Wells
Source: 1News

The head of Taranaki District Health Board has given 1News an exclusive interview, responding to criticism over the region’s Māori vaccination rates.

Last week, Health Minister Andrew Little and Associate Health Minister Peeni Henare singled out the DHB’s Pfizer rollout to Māori.

Minister Henare claimed he’d had complaints iwi were, “dissatisfied with the job the DHB was doing”.

Meanwhile Little told media outlet Newsroom it was “hard to avoid that conclusion” that the Taranaki DHB had failed Māori in its vaccine rollout, when looking at the slow uptake.

In a one-off media interview, Taranaki DHB boss Rosemary Clements denied Māori had been left behind.

“I completely disagree that Taranaki has failed Māori,” she said.

“I think it’s still a work in progress, however, in think in the end, we’re going to have really great Māori vaccination rates.”

Sixty-four per cent of Taranaki DHB’s population are fully jabbed.

It’s one of the lowest rates in the country, alongside Northland, Tairawhiti, and Lakes DHBs.

For Māori, the rates are even lower; just 44 per cent have had two doses.

The Associate Health Minister says the money will help fast-track Covid-19 vaccination efforts and prepare Māori communities for the new protection framework.

That’s the second to worst rate for Māori vaccinations, with Bay of Plenty DHB seeing just 43.5 per cent Māori fully vaccinated.

When pressed on why the rates for Māori were so much lower than the average population, Clements put it down to vaccine hesitancy as well as dealing with a once in a lifetime pandemic.

“I think we need to remember that this is the first time any of us have done any of this... we’ve all learnt as we’ve gone along,

“And despite what I believe are our best efforts to try to bring people along, to try to do things that have been request of us, we are a reasonably sized organisation, and sometimes we fall down. I think that’s probably exactly what happen in this instance.”

She told 1News she has personally been working very close with iwi to manage the vaccination rollout.

“Māori is always going to be our priority. Sometimes that looks like providing staff to assist alongside their staff, sometimes it’s about providing a mobile clinic.

"I personally have bi-weekly, sometimes weekly, meetings with iwi chairs. Those kinds of things have being going on all the way through, however I think that the DHB probably misunderstood how dissatisfied iwi were with the rollout.”

Clements has also gone on the record referring to low Māori vaccination rates as “last week’s news cycle”.

1News asked her about this position.

“I think it’s last week’s news cycle to say that we are lagging and failing. What is current is that we do absolutely need to not take our eye off the ball with Māori vaccination rates. It’s absolutely at the uppermost in my mind all the time, and in my team’s mind, that we need to get those rates up."

She said she was confident that despite the lag in Māori rates now, that the Taranaki DHB population will hit the 90 per cent vaccination rate target by the first week of December.

“That’s our aim and if we’ve done that then I think we’ve pulled our weight for the country.”

One iwi working to raise the rates for Māori is Ngā Ruahine.

Warren Nicholls, who is spearheading the drive for Ngā Ruahine, said if Māori had been given the resources and money to run their own rollouts from the very beginning, the rates would look a lot different.

“At the beginning we weren’t able to rollout in a meaningful, Māori manner,” he said.

Ngā Ruahine has run at least 12 pop-up clinics since the rollout began, in rural South Taranaki.

Nicholls said there are nuances when it comes to Māori vaccinations that Pākehā may not understand.

“For whānau Māori, it’s an intergenerational view. We have whānau who don’t want to get vaxxed until their under 12s can, because they don’t want to put themselves first. If we’d been able to design our services to fit that, then we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

The iwi ran another pop-up clinic on Friday at Oeo Marae, with a free coffees and smoothies from Sweet Aggie and kai provided by Tika Catering.

Kiri Erb, from Tika Catering, told 1News having food and drinks available makes the vaccination process far less daunting for whānau.

“It’s about creating a space where people feel welcome and safe. That’s best done with manakitanga – and kai is a big part of that,” she told 1News.

When asked about the low vaccination rates among Māori, she put it down to fear.

“I think people are genuinely scared. But here [Oeo Marae], people can come along, they don’t have to get vaccinated, but they can korero.”

Nicholls sat down with a couple who were vaccine hesitant and explained to the pair what Pfizer is made from and what it does to protect from Covid-19.

He said the iwi is battling a wave of misinformation and vaccine hesitancy.

“We’re getting that regularly. Even phone calls out of hours! Whānau are seeing so much information – we know what social media is like, and it’s all very confusing. People just want basic information that they can filter through and get the answers to their questions.”

Angela Kerehoma, who runs Sweet Aggie (a coffee caravan) told 1News it’s helping people with questions that is the most important part of the iwi-led pop-ups.

“These clinics are bringing more awareness to the benefits to our people and to our iwi. The more we’re about and about, the more knowledge and better understanding of the safety there is.

“Have a coffee, have a kai, and if you’re unsure we are only here to help you make decisions.”

Further up to coast from Oeo Marae, Dr Nick Loveridge-Easther also finds vaccine hesitancy a hurdle.

He told 1News Taranaki DHB is fighting against populations and generation who have historically faced health inequities.

“This is not something we can overcome overnight."

He said the first stages of the vaccine rollout were the easiest in terms of numbers, as those signing up didn’t need convincing.

“That’s where we need more coordination, to get them engaged with systems. It’s going to need more resourcing, and it’s going to need a lot of time.

“We’re trying to repair a long history of mistrust with a health system. That takes a long time to overcome,” he said.

“Although we’ve got some population that we’re really struggling to get over the line, it’s not for lack of trying. This is something that is directly correlated to poor history of relationships and health provisions. The people we’re struggling to engage with around Covid, also have poor health statistics throughout our health system.”

At his clinic in Opunake, 1News met two adults coming in for their first jabs.

Both had been hesitant to get the vaccine, but mentioned it was whānau that made them change their minds.

"I wasn't too keen on it," one young man told 1News, "but pretty much everybody I love got it."

Jacqui Wagstaff, a nurse who also works at the Opunake clinic, has been aiding local iwi with the vaccine rollout.

She said the difference between coming to a general practice to get your vaccine, compared to iwi led, is stark.

“We put them through quickly here [at the clinic]. We are go-go-go the whole time and we don’t have time to chat. Going out with the iwi team – you do have time to chat. You have kai, you have a cup of tea, and you can tell they feel so comfortable among their own people. It’s really relaxing,” she said.

Nicolls indicated if Māori had been given the power to do far more targeted vaccination drop-ins from beginning of the rollout, like the one described by Wagstaff, Taranaki Māori would be far better placed.

“Imagine what we could’ve done.”