Sat. Dec 9th, 2023

Pacific Islanders in Southern California are dying at a higher rate from the coronavirus than any other racial group in the region and statewide, an issue advocates say is getting swept under the radar because the population is small and tends to be lumped with other ethnic groups.

While coronavirus case numbers overall are lower for Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, the death rates are disproportionately higher when the entire population is taken into account, according to the California Department of Public Health.

National statistics show one in 3,100 Pacific Islander Americans has died from the coronavirus, which amounts to 32.7 deaths per 100,000, more than Latinos, white Americans and Asian Americans. Only Black Americans and indigenous people have a higher death rate in the United States.

In this community where the number one killer is heart disease, the virus has acted much like a little spark that triggers a wildfire, said Alisi Tulua, program manager for the Orange County Asian and Pacific Islander Alliance who is also part of the national Pacific Islander COVID-19 Response Team.

“Many community members are also in dialysis,” she said. “So we’re experiencing a severe impact.”

As of June 25, 345 cases have been recorded in the Pacific Islander community in Los Angeles County, 84 in San Diego County, 48 in Orange County, and 46 in San Bernardino County. In Riverside County, Pacific Islanders are grouped with Asian Americans, which advocates say makes it more difficult to get a clear picture. California, with 871 cases, is second in the nation for the highest number of coronavirus cases among Pacific Islanders.

A report released in May by UCLA’s Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture showed that in the 18-34 age group, Pacific Islanders have nearly 300 cases per 100,000 compared to 72.9 among whites.

A ravaged Marshallese community

In Arkansas, which has reported 1,116 cases as of June 25 — the highest in the nation for Pacific Islanders — the virus has ripped across the Marshallese community, many of whom work at poultry processing plants.

Garden Grove resident Kelani Silk lost her 70-year-old uncle and a first cousin, a woman in her 40s, to the virus. Both died last month, within a week of each other. Silk said the Marshallese community in central Orange County, has strong connections to the community in Arkansas where more than 12,000 Marshallese people live. She alone has more than 100 family members who reside in and around Springdale.

“A lot of families out here are seeing multiple deaths within the family,” Silk said. “It’s been heartbreaking.”

She also knows of family members who have traveled to Arkansas to care for parents who have become infected with COVID-19 or to bury loved ones who have died from the virus. But the pandemic has brought the Marshallese communities in both states closer, Silk said.

“What happened in Arkansas has raised awareness here and made our community more vigilant,” she said. “It has created this close bond within the community to rally each other, to help those who have lost family members or those who are struggling to get assistance.”

Silk helps interpret for family members in Arkansas over the phone so they can get access to resources and services.

“It breaks my heart that I can’t be right there with them and do more for them,” she said.

Battling disinformation and stigma

There is certainly a stigma in the community when it comes to any kind of disease, Tulua said.

“Many look at a disease as some kind of a curse, that there has to be something wrong with your family,” she said. “People don’t want to admit they have been infected because they don’t want it to seem like their families are unhygienic. A big part of our effort is to change this thinking by sharing stories and providing people access to resources.”

The fight against disinformation about the pandemic is real, said Dr. Raynald Samoa, an endocrinologist at City of Hope in Duarte who serves as the clinical lead for the national Pacific Islander COVID-19 Response Team.

“I was saddened to see that many people in my own circles believe that this pandemic is a hoax,” he said.

In late March, Samoa, who is of Pacific Islander descent, was diagnosed with the coronavirus. He did something that was unusual for him. He shared information about his diagnosis on Facebook.

“I decided to come out and speak against that belief,” he said. “When I did that, others in the community began to share their stories with me.”

Problems with healthcare access

Lack of access to health care also is a serious issue for Pacific Islanders, Samoa said. While there is no data available for Southern California, he said, in some parts of Washington state, only 10% of Pacific Islanders have health insurance.

“Nationally, the rate of uninsured is higher in Pacific Islander communities because many can’t afford it or might not be able to get it because they are undocumented,” he said.

Many communities don’t even have access to Medicaid. The United States had promised that residents of Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands would get Medicaid benefits through a 1986 pact known as the Compact of Free Association, or COFA, which was about 40 years after the U.S. conducted nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands that were later linked to cancer and other health problems.

But, in 1996, the U.S. Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act took Medicaid away from the islanders. Rep. Tony Cardenas, D-Panorama City, is leading the efforts to restore that access to these communities.

Samoa says he is helping community groups apply for and secure grants. Lack of data, he said, is adversely affecting these communities.

“Our current public health model is fueled by data,” he said. “Data is put forth to highlight health concerns in the community and to seek resources to address those concerns. We are still struggling with the data piece. We don’t have enough data.”

A community inspired by faith

In the Pacific Islander community where the church is the hub of communal gatherings, faith leaders have spearheaded the effort to create awareness among members about the harm the coronavirus can cause, Tulua said.

“Most of our churches in Southern California have remained closed,” she said. “Faith leaders have not only helped engage their communities about taking proper precautions against the virus, but have also modeled that behavior.”

The Rev. Pausa Thompson of Dominguez Samoan Church in Compton. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

The Rev. Pausa Thompson, head pastor of the Dominguez Samoan Congregational Christian Church in Compton, said his church reopened in compliance with state guidelines for houses of worship. But, he’s thinking about shutting it down after seeing cases increase in Los Angeles County.

Thompson believes faith leaders can help translate the county’s health data for congregants. And he means, literally translate, because language barriers get in the way of proper understanding of these issues.

“We as the clergy can serve as the arms and legs for medical professionals,” he said. “Our goal is to the keep the numbers as low as possible in a community that is extremely vulnerable because of our underlying health conditions and economic disparities.”

The coronavirus has greatly affected the Pacific Islanders’ ability to practice their faith, including the manner in which funerals are conducted. Typically, these are elaborate rituals, but government regulations have largely limited the number of people who can be present.

The Pacific Islander community is predominantly Christian.

“We’ve always been a religious people, even before we became Christians,” Thompson said. “Faith is heavily ingrained in our DNA as we look to something greater than ourselves for sustenance, guidance and wisdom.”

Faith is continuing to carry the community through this difficult time, even though church doors are closed, he said.

“We’ve developed a deeper sense of spirituality after the virus. When you are faced with your own mortality, it brings you closer to God.”

Culture, customs threatened

Pacific Islanders also are a strongly communal people, said Heidi Quenga, director of the Kutturan Chamoru Foundation in Long Beach, which aims to preserve the heritage of the Mariana Islands through dance, music, language and peer mentoring. This group also has taken an active role in getting the word out about the 2020 census and in helping community members navigate the health-care system, she said.

Quenga said the lack of communal activities such as singing and dancing has deeply affected the community.

“We’ve seen major Pacific Islander festivals being canceled through the end of next year,” she said. “It’s been devastating.”

Quenga says she also is seeing a lot of families get together for high school graduations, which are usually celebrated with great enthusiasm in the community.

“Better data is so important so we can help our communities understand the severity of this pandemic and the impact of their actions,” she said. “We don’t want to be the number one racial group to have the most positive cases. We’re really feeling the brunt of it.”

Older members of the Pacific Islander community don’t live in nursing homes, but with their families. But, that puts them at risk as well because younger family members, who often hold essential jobs, could bring the virus back home, Tulua said.

“These are individuals who hold cultural wisdom and information that many of us who are born and raised in this country don’t have yet,” she said. “So a big part of this is also about preserving culture for those of us in the diaspora. If we lose our elders, our stories, traditions and connection to our roots may be lost with them.”


By Arlene Huff

Arlene Huff is the founding member of Golden State Online. Before that She was a general assignment reporter. A native Californian, she graduated from the University of California with a degree in medical anthropology and global health. She currently lives in Los Angeles.

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