Nearly a quarter of all confirmed coronavirus cases in Hawaii involve Pacific Islanders, who make up just 4% of the state’s population.

That’s according to new data the Hawaii Department of Health released Friday showing that 23% of Hawaii’s 727 COVID-19 cases involve non-Hawaiian Pacific Islanders. That’s 164 cases, more than any other racial group except the white community, whose 175 cases are about on par with their proportion of the population.

The only other community that is experiencing a disproportionately high rate of COVID-19 cases in Hawaii is the Filipino community. They represent 16% of the population but comprise 21% of statewide cases.

These numbers reflect every confirmed coronavirus case reported in Hawaii since the start of the pandemic, and they aren’t all active cases. The state of Hawaii doesn’t currently offer further racial breakdowns of hospitalizations or death data, and has not released any data on the Hispanic or Latino community.

Sarah Park, the state’s epidemiologist, said it makes sense that Pacific Islanders are bearing the brunt of the pandemic in Hawaii.

They tend to have higher poverty rates and are more likely to live in overcrowded conditions, making it harder for sick people to self-isolate. She compared the current situation to a recent mumps outbreak, another respiratory disease that affected Pacific Islanders.

“Honestly, from that particular experience I was concerned through this whole pandemic about when and if we might see COVID enter into the Pacific Islander experience,” she said.

When asked what the Department of Health did to help prevent a similar outbreak, she said it is currently working to reach out to the community and offer testing.

“Clearly there’s a need for more,” she said. “What this pandemic is really doing is highlighting the disparities in our population.”

Volunteers fill out screening paperwork for residents who showed-up to have COVID-19 testing done at the Waipi'o Peninsula Soccer Complex Saturday, June 27, 2020. Dr. Scott Miskovich continues to lead the Premier Medical Group Hawaiʻi in COVID testing as the State is experiencing a recent rise in positive cases. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
Volunteers fill out screening paperwork for residents who showed up to have COVID-19 testing done at the Waipi’o Peninsula Soccer Complex Saturday. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2020

Pacific Islander community leaders have been organizing locally and nationally to respond to the pandemic. Feleaʻi Tau, who is originally from American Samoa, is one of the co-leaders of the Hawaii Pacific Islander COVID-19 Response Team.

She said the group has been working with the Department of Health and churches to try to identify needs and channel resources. It’s a challenge, she said, given that there aren’t any nonprofits in Hawaii that specifically serve Pacific Islanders, although some organizations like We Are Oceania serve specific communities under that umbrella.

Given the gap in services, Tau said she and other leaders have been working with Pacific Islander churches. She noted that on top of being hit hard by the virus, many Pacific Islanders are struggling economically. Many are essential workers who risk job loss if they get sick. Others have been laid off and unable to access unemployment due to language barriers.

If you don’t have a job, there’s no funding for food and other necessities,” she said.

Hawaii’s non-Hawaiian Pacific Islander communities have some of the highest poverty rates in the state, according to a 2018 state analysis.

The coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating that. Kachusy Silander, a local Chuukese interpreter, wrote in the Star-Advertiser last week that several Chuukese families have been evicted during the pandemic, despite a temporary state prohibition on evictions.

Some of the challenges facing Pacific Islanders involve issues that more financially privileged communities take for granted. When Tau heard that some were fearful of going to the doctor, she suggested telehealth services, but learned that doesn’t work for many people because they don’t have access to Wi-Fi at home.

“They don’t have the financial means to buy themselves masks,” she added. “They have families in multi-generational housing and $5 a mask is a lot for eight or 10 people.”

“There’s a ton of work that we need to do to fight this disproportionate devastation that our Pacific Islander communities have been facing,” she said.

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