HONOLULU (KHON2) — Data from Hawaii’s Department of Health shows Pacific Islanders remain the highest ethnic group with COVID-19 cases in the state, community leaders and DOH staff are working together to share vital information about the virus and the vaccine to these communities.

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Monday’s COVID-19 case chart indicates 26% of COVID-19 cases come from Pacific Islanders, even though they only make up 4% of the state’s population.

The Department of Health’s Lead Investigator for the Pacific Island Contact Tracing team Chantelle Matagi said socioeconomic issues lead to higher COVID cases among Pacific Islanders. Such as multi-generational household under one room and types of jobs that expose them to the virus.

Matagi said, “We do want to make sure that people understand this has nothing to do with genetics. They’re not predisposed. This has everything to do with socioeconomic issues.”

The disproportionate impact prompted community leaders to create a group known as the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Hawaii COVID-19 Response, Recovery and Resilience Team.

The Papa Ola Lokahi Executive Director Sheri Daniels is also a co-lead of the NHPI Hawaii COVID-19 R3 team.

Daniels said, “What we’re finding with our team is we have people sitting in at the tables, coming back and reporting, and we’re able to then push it out to our committees.”

Daniels said the R3 team is made up of more than 40 community organizations and individuals who work directly within their communities. She said vaccine distribution is the conversation they are having with their members and state leaders.

“We’re going to be in the first responder’s category, we’re going to be in a lot of those areas already,” Daniels said. “But how do we make sure for those that maybe aren’t? Where can we make sure they’re in? And that’s probably going to come in the middle of it if we’re going to try to have some say in it.”  

CJ Johnson is a program specialist with the community outreach and public health education project with the Department of Health and said the socioeconomic issues have also had an impact on Pacific Islanders’ health. It is likely their underlying medical conditions could put them in the higher phases for the vaccine.

“Whether or not they’re targeted ethnographically, they are going to be really highly represented I think in a lot of these phases,” Johnson said. “A lot of our Pacific Islander populations are over-represented in those essential workers and the multi-generational households. In fact, in the population with chronic diseases that exacerbate your course of COVID-19, like diabetes and heart disease.”

There is also the challenge of trustworthiness. Tina Tauasosi-Posiluai is a the Pasefika Empowerment & Advancement Executive Director. She is focusing on sharing information about the virus and resources with the different communities who make up Pacific Islanders.

Tauasosi-Posiluai said, “We need to reach those leaders in the community, Chuukese, Marshallese. They all have church leaders. Some of them have traditional leaders in their groups.”  

Matagi’s Pacific Island Contact Tracing team will soon grow to 17 members who are well connected to the communities they need to reach.

“They’re not only native speakers, but they’re also part of their communities,” Matagi said. “Many of them are also community leaders within the smaller communities, smaller Pacific communities. We want to make sure that we put it in terms that they understand. That it’s a culture that looks like and resembles them.”

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