Hawaii is one of only nine states that still hasn’t shared any data about how many people have been vaccinated by race and ethnicity, raising city council members’ concerns that communities with high rates of COVID-19 aren’t getting adequate access to the shots.

An analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that as of this month, 41 states had released racial breakdowns of vaccinations. Hawaii was among nine that hadn’t yet done so, along with Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

Brooks Baehr, spokesman for the Hawaii Department of Health, said Wednesday that the state is close to releasing the data.

Honolulu City Council member Radiant Cordero in city council meeting held at Honolulu Hale.
Honolulu City Councilwoman Radiant Cordero sits in a City Council meeting held at Honolulu Hale. She wrote a letter to the Hawaii Department of Health asking for vaccine data by race more than a month ago and never heard back. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Acting state epidemiologist Sarah Kemble told Civil Beat in January that Hawaii is using the same federal database system to collect race data as other states. She said disaggregated race data would not be available until April, but broad data revealing vaccination rates for Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders as one category would be released in mid-February.

But as of Wednesday, no race data for vaccinations has been publicly released despite repeated requests by Civil Beat and city officials.

“It is unacceptable,” said Honolulu City Councilwoman Esther Kiaʻaina, who is Native Hawaiian. Last year, she criticized the health department’s former leadership for its failure to separate Native Hawaiians from other Pacific Islanders in its COVID-19 data.

Once disaggregated, the data revealed non-Hawaiian Pacific Islanders — such as Chuukese, Marshallese and Samoans — suffered from extremely high COVID-19 rates while Native Hawaiians did not experience any disparities. Filipinos were the only other ethnic community consistently reporting disproportionate coronavirus rates.

Hawaii has administered 77% of the vaccines it has received with more than 17% of the population receiving at least a first dose, according to the state’s data dashboard. The state has provided data on vaccines administered by county and by certain age groups, but several community leaders want the information broken down by race and ethnicity.

Potentially Harmful Delay

“We’re kind of still invisible in terms of what data is available,” said Agnes Malate, co-chair of the Filpino Community Center CARES Project. When she got vaccinated along with her mother at Hawaii Pacific Health, the form they filled out only had the option for “Asian,” not “Filipino.”

“How are they then able to gauge as to which population is accessing it?” she said of the vaccine. “These populations (Filpinos and Pacific Islanders) are disproportionately impacted not only by COVID but in general by health disparities.”

On Wednesday, Kiaʻaina said while she is aware the state has been conducting community outreach, data is necessary to ensure that the communities that are most affected by the pandemic are getting access to the vaccine.

“Everybody needs measurable outcomes. We need to know are we being effective and successful,” she said. While she believes the Department of Health’s intentions are good, “what’s the point if they’re not reaching the people they’re supposed to be reaching?”

She said millions of dollars in public funding is available to ensure that the data is collected and vaccines are distributed accordingly.

“At this stage in the game it’s not about lack of funding and I don’t want to hear about lack of capacity,” she said.

On Feb. 1, Honolulu City Councilwoman Radiant Cordero wrote a letter to the Department of Health asking for vaccination data by race. She also tweeted her request to the agency.

The health department never responded, she said Wednesday.

“It’s very frustrating,” she said. “If data was a key factor to getting testing out there (in Kalihi) … shouldn’t the data also guide us in administering the vaccines?”

Many other states have established priority lists that specifically target communities with high rates of coronavirus cases. The state Department of Health chose not to explicitly prioritize communities by race or by zip code in its vaccinations, saying they’d get access by default through occupational priorities. And while the New York Times reported 37 states are currently allowing people with diabetes to access the vaccine, Hawaii isn’t yet one of them.

Any of those priorities would have helped the people living in Cordero’s district, many of whom are Filipino and Pacific Islander, the councilwoman said. She said if the state isn’t comfortable prioritizing ethnicities or zip codes that have had many COVID-19 cases, why not do it by density, noting her constituents live in packed multi-generational homes, which make it easier to spread the virus.

Cordero, who is Filipina, said she thinks it’s silly that the state’s vaccination priorities don’t reflect the state’s own data showing geographic and ethnic disparities, but at this point she wishes Hawaii would follow Alaska in making the vaccinations available to anyone over the age 16.

“I’m super frustrated with having all these designations with dates and parameters. Can we base it off the data?” she said, referring to the data showing certain zip codes and ethnic communities have higher COVID-19 rates. “Open it up or base it off the data.”

Tina Tauasosi-Posiulai is on the Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander COVID-19 task force and is executive director of Pasefika Empowerment and Advancement. She suspects few Pacific Islanders have been vaccinated because until this week Hawaii has limited vaccinations to people aged 75 and older in addition to front-line workers and some others considered essential.

“There’s not many Pacific Islanders that are 75 and older,” said Tauasosi-Posiulai, who is Samoan. “Our people are dying young.”

But there’s no way to know without data. Cordero hopes her fears are not true, noting that her constituents are far more eager to get vaccinated than they were to participate in COVID-19 testing.

“I don’t want to see a repeat of the same numbers of positive cases,” Cordero said. “I’d rather see it reversed, that they have the highest rate of immunization.”

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