The Hunter is holding its breath over the prospect of a second wave of COVID-19 hitting the region, with residents in aged care, those with chronic health conditions and senior citizens most at risk.
People in aged-care homes are particularly vulnerable to the virus spreading, as has been shown in outbreaks in Victoria and previously in NSW.
Federal health statistics show the Hunter has 6540 residential aged-care places, with an occupancy rate of about 90 per cent. About 5910 people are in aged-care homes in the region.
Newcastle MP Sharon Claydon said COVID-19 was "exposing the fault lines" in the aged-care sector, following "years of neglect under the Liberals".
Ms Claydon said the federal government runs and regulates the aged-care system.
"Tragically, we have an aged-care system that's utterly unprepared to cope with the impact of COVID-19," she said.
She said Australia's aged-care system was "already in crisis".
"Newcastle aged-care providers are telling me that they've been stretched to breaking point - they can't get the personal protective equipment (PPE) they need, they don't know how they're going to maintain their workforce and they're deeply worried about cross-contamination."
Ms Claydon took issue with Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who "keeps telling us that future outbreaks are inevitable".
The Morrison government has deployed AUSMAT [Australian Medical Assistance Team] and Australian Defence Force personnel to help stabilise outbreaks in Victoria.
The government said it would supply 500,000 reusable face shields for staff at residential aged-care services across Victoria.
Additionally, it would release a further 5 million face masks from the national medical stockpile for Victorian aged-care providers.
"The new release of face masks from the national stockpile is in addition to the 4 million surgical masks made available to aged-care services on July 13," Health Minister Greg Hunt said.
"Substantial amounts of PPE, including additional masks and face shields, will continue to arrive over the coming weeks and months."
The Hunter has more than 117,000 people aged 65 and over - that's about 18 per cent of the population, according to ABS data.
NSW Health states that people 65 years and older with chronic medical conditions are at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19.
And people aged 70 and over are generally considered at increased risk, as well as anyone with a chronic health condition regardless of age.
Places with the highest percentage of people 65 and over in the Hunter include the Nelson Bay peninsula [31 per cent], Tea Gardens/Hawks Nest [45 per cent], Lemon Tree Passage/Tanilba Bay [26 per cent], Stockton/Fullerton Cove [28 per cent], Swansea/Caves Beach [26 per cent], Belmont South/Blacksmiths [24 per cent], Toronto/Awaba [25 per cent], Morisset/Cooranbong [25 per cent] and Wangi/Rathmines [25 per cent].
Belmont North's Eunice Hobson-English is among those who face an increased risk from COVID-19 due to her age and underlying health conditions.
Mrs Hobson-English, 73, lives with Parkinson's disease, asthma and autoimmune disease.
Living in a retirement village and next to a nursing home, Mrs Hobson-English is surrounded by those at increased risk from COVID.
She said many people in this situation had been doing the right thing and sticking to social distancing to prevent the virus from spreading.
Some in society generally, though, were "thinking as usual that they're invincible".
"They're not thinking of the other people they could pass it on to," she said.
"That is what we're fed up with."
She said everyone should be "sticking with us and doing it all together to get COVID out of the way, so we can all get on with our lives".
Some people, she said, were "putting our freedom at risk by going out and pleasing themselves".
The burden of COVID-19 is felt by some more than others.
"We've been locked down for ages now. We're trying not to go completely doolally," she said.
She said those living in her retirement village were lucky because they can chat to neighbours, while maintaining social distancing of 1.5 metres.
"People going past on the pathways and next-door neighbours can chat," she said.
She added that the village had a bush outlook and birdlife.
"We're looking out on bushland, not bare walls," she said.
"I don't know how these people in little units are coping at all, looking out on bare bricks day after day."
Mrs Hobson-English said the hardest thing for her personally was not seeing her grandchildren.
She tries to keep busy.
"I do a lot of things on the internet and I have been learning new skills and ideas," she said.
She's been on video chats like Zoom and tuned into online concerts.
She bought new curtains and plants to "brighten the place up".
When she does go out, it's usually to see a doctor.
"I don't seem to be going anywhere without getting a needle stuck in me," she half-joked.
She said her carers and those who look after neighbours had been "legendary".
"They've really put themselves out there to keep us happy and safe," she said.
She and her carer usually go shopping once a week, but this isn't allowed at the moment because of the risk of a second wave.
She does shopping online, which either gets delivered or her carer picks it up.
Regulations that keep older residents and carers safe "can change week to week, depending on the level of risk".
"If we go to the doctors, I have to sit in the backseat like Miss Daisy and a carer drives."
Mrs Hobson-English has had pneumonia in the past, so she tries hard to avoid colds and flu.
"I had pneumonia when I was a child a couple of times. It left me with scarred lungs. That's affected my whole life," she said.
"I have a tendency to catch infections. Now I have an autoimmune system that is too strong - it causes me a lot of pain and inflammation."
She said her autoimmune problem could be the after-effects of her body having fought previous infections.
"But you can't tell what causes this," she said, referring to the mystery of many chronic diseases.
"This is why I worry about young people catching things now. It can have ongoing lifetime effects."
She is cautious but it's hard to avoid all risk.
"You think you're being really careful and not going anywhere, but even going to a doctor's appointment can be risky," she said.
She heard of a doctor last week who expressed concern about people from Sydney and Central Coast "coming to our area to jump the queue for virus testing".
The concern was they could possibly bring the virus with them and attend shops, cafes and pubs in our area.
This kind of fear combined with the lack of a normal social life compounds the challenges of pandemic life.
"The community hall we use for social activities is locked," she said.
"It was reopened after the first wave, but now it's locked again."
She and a neighbour made a video to pass the time.
"We're hoping to have a pretend premiere at the hall with popcorn, once we're liberated as we call it."
Until the day of liberation comes, seniors like Mrs Hobson-English aim to find a level of resilience.
"We do things to cheer ourselves and everybody else up," she said.
"We're not just drooping away. We are fighting back."
NSW Health has listed the conditions that increase the risk of serious illness from COVID-19.
People at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19 are those who had an organ transplant and immune-suppressive therapy; a bone marrow transplant in the past two years; blood cancer in the past five years, including leukaemia, lymphoma or myelodysplastic syndrome; and those having chemotherapy or radiotherapy.
People at moderate risk of severe illness from COVID-19 are those with chronic kidney failure, heart disease (coronary heart disease or failure), chronic lung disease (excluding mild or moderate asthma), cancer in the past year, diabetes, severe obesity, chronic liver disease, some neurological conditions such as stroke or dementia, some chronic inflammatory conditions and treatments, other primary or acquired immunodeficiency and poorly controlled hypertension. The risk depends on age, gender and whether you smoke.
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