The Office of Hawaiian Affairs wants the state to provide more specific data about how the coronavirus crisis is affecting Hawaii’s Native Hawaiian community.

The agency sent a letter to Gov. David Ige and three state agencies on April 23 requesting disaggregated information specifically about Native Hawaiians. So far, when the state has released demographic data about coronavirus cases Native Hawaiians have been included in the broader Pacific Islander category.

“It’s one class and we’re stuck with having both grouped together,” Hawaii Department of Health Director Bruce Anderson told reporters at a press conference Wednesday.

His statement angered Esther Kia’aina, executive director of the Pacific Basin Development Council, who has spent her career advocating for disaggregated data for Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders.

She posted on Facebook a searing indictment of Anderson: “Dear Dr. Anderson: You are wrong on data collection for Native Hawaiians. The State has the discretion to disaggregate just as the U.S. Census does beyond federal minimum guidelines. It’s clear to me that you don’t care and you shouldn’t be in the top health post for Hawai`i.”

Esther Kiaaina portrait Washington DC Interior Bldg. 8 june 2016
Esther Kia’aina, former assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of the Interior, says disaggregated data is needed. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Reached by phone 15 minutes later, Kia’aina told Civil Beat Anderson’s comments made her mad because she thinks the state has a responsibility to go beyond the minimum federal guidelines, especially given that Hawaii has the largest Asian-Pacific Islander community in the nation.

“And yet that is the response we get from the DOH?” she said, adding that the people of Hawaii deserve better. “I work with everybody, but I’m sorry, that was completely unacceptable and unconscionable what he said.”

Kia’aina feels so strongly because she believes disaggregated data for Asian-Pacific Islanders is needed in order for organizations like OHA and health providers to better serve communities.

Department of Health Director Bruce Anderson 14 day quarantine.
Department of Health Director Bruce Anderson said that Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders have the highest rate of COVID-19 in the state but that’s not currently shown by his agency’s data. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

That’s a key reason that OHA sent its letter in the first place.

“We have limited resources and we want to make sure that how we direct those resources is done in the most efficient and effective ways,” said OHA spokesman Sterling Wong. He said that he noted that recent data from Oregon and California shows Pacific Islanders, including Hawaiians, have been disproportionately affected by the virus.

But those states appear to be combining Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders into one category. Anderson didn’t mention it Wednesday but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s case report form for the coronavirus has just one checkbox for that group and no further breakdown.

Anderson also said Wednesday that Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders have the highest rate of COVID-19 cases in the state. But that’s not apparent from the visualization of state data on the Department of Health’s website Wednesday.

Data from the Hawaii Department of Health on Wednesday shows the breakdown of COVID-19 cases by race. 

“Bruce’s comment was based on the Hawaii bar chart which changes weekly,” said Janice Okubo, a spokeswoman for the health department when asked for clarification later. “He also based his comment on what he understands is data that was collected nationally.”

In fact, the chart shows that the rate of COVID-19 infection among Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders is roughly equivalent to their proportion of the state’s population, comprising 11% of the infections compared to 10% of the population.

By contrast, the chart shows that whites comprise 29% of those who have tested positive for the virus while making up 26% of the population.

The bar chart is updated every Friday.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs is specifically seeking disaggregated data from not only DOH but also the Department of Human Services and the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services told Civil Beat that the agency’s director plans to meet with OHA’s executive director this week to discuss the data request.

Bill Kunstman, spokesman for the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, provided OHA with a snapshot of racial and ethnic data on unemployment claims. The data says 24% of statewide unemployment filings the week of March 12 were made by Hawaiians.

But it doesn’t reflect more recent filings and Kunstman told Civil Beat that the information isn’t actually based on state data but rather on monthly data from the American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“It’s surveys, it’s not real numbers,” he said.

In the absence of more data, OHA has been working with Native Hawaiian Chambers of Commerce and is circulating a survey in an effort to help Native Hawaiian-owned businesses.

Advocates for Native Hawaiians are still hopeful more data will be provided.

“We have to know how are we failing people, how is our community and government failing people,” says Deja Ostrowski, an attorney at the Medical-Legal Partnership for Children in Hawaii. “What COVID has done is laid bare inequalities that were always there.”

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