They aimed to knock on 4000 doors in Keilor Downs – the suburb where a COVID-19 family cluster increased by three to a total of 15 cases across at least eight households on Wednesday.
One of the new cases was a student at Keilor Downs Secondary College, triggering all students, families and staff to attend a specially-established testing centre at Melbourne Showgrounds.
Joey Nguyen, one of the community engagement officers, called the door-knocking a “huge exercise”.
“I think having face-to-face engagement with people is really different from other ways we’re reaching them, such as through the website or social media,” said Dr Nguyen, donning a “COVID-19 public health team” jacket that authorities hope will become familiar to the 1 million residents of Melbourne’s six hotspots.
“We need to make sure we get to people at their doors. It’s about having a conversation with the community”
The doorknockers include health department workers, participants in the Work for Victoria scheme that re-employs those who lost their jobs due to the pandemic and seconded health workers such as Dr Nguyen, a paediatrician at the Royal Children’s Hospital.
The squad’s next priorities in Brimbank council will be the suburbs of West Sunshine and Albanvale, where a primary school was closed on Monday because two teachers and a student tested positive to coronavirus.
The “army” of “hundreds and hundreds” of doorknockers will expand across the other hotspots areas of Hume, Casey, Moreland, Cardinia and Darebin in the coming days, according to Premier Daniel Andrews.
Asked if the government should have engaged with multicultural groups earlier, Professor Sutton said it was a focus from the start of the pandemic but was a “complex process”.
“It is not a simple case of pamphlets and campaign materials and banners to reach into communities,” he said.
“You do need that community leadership, community champions and all of the modes and methods available to you to try and get messages out.”
Professor Sutton added that many people use social media from their country of origin or friends as their primary source of information.
“A lot of it tells them that it’s all rubbish messaging from government,” he said. “It’s not an easy task.”
Professor Allen Cheng, an epidemiologist and infectious disease doctor with Alfred Health in Melbourne, said the difficulty was that about 190 languages are spoken in Victoria but public health messaging had only been translated into about 50.
Professor Cheng warned some tiny minority ethnic communities may consequently be falling through the cracks.
“It’s a really difficult job because information is changing all the time and so every time they change something they have to go and change it another 50 times,” he said.
“Knowing what we know now, yes, they could have done a little bit more to try and engage those communities a bit better.
“But we have to also remember this all happened very quickly … often this kind of community engagement is done over months or years.”
“What’s happening is there are small communities that are relatively hard to get a hold of, they may not speak English or work in precarious labour and are reluctant to get tested or they don’t have a car so can’t get to the clinic.
“There are a million reasons why it might be difficult for them”.
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Michael is a state political reporter for The Age.
Melissa Cunningham is The Age’s health reporter.