COVID-19 and the 'Silent Storm' That Hit One of Washington's Most At-Risk Groups

May 06 2021
Photo courtesy Che Sehyun, Pacific Islander Community Association

The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have not been equally felt by all.

This is especially true of the Native Hawaiian & Pacific Islander (NHPI) communities (which includes Pacific Islanders originating in Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia) in Washington state. The latest data from the Washington State Department of Health tell us COVID-19's devastating impact on this community. NHPIs have the highest rates of COVID-19 cases (four times higher than white populations), hospitalizations (ten times higher than white populations), and deaths (six times higher than white populations) across the state’s races and ethnicities.

To address this disparity, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation partnered with Harborview Medical Center, UW Medicine, and others to reach this and other historically underserved communities. Using mobile vaccination teams and pop-up clinics, the foundation’s support is bringing the COVID-19 vaccine directly to people who need it.

We spoke to the Pacific Islander Community Association’s Executive Director Joseph Seia about the resilience of NHPI communities, the lessons the pandemic has taught them, and what brings them hope.

Tell us about the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community? For someone who doesn’t have insight, what can you share about the community and the people within it?

The NHPI or Pasifika community is actually one of the first communities outside of indigenous people to be here in Washington state. We've been here for over 200 years, but little is known about our community.

Eight out of 10 of us in the U.S. are Native Americans indigenous to some territory that was colonized by the U.S. government. But in the last few decades, NHPIs were lumped in with Asians contributing a lot to the invisibility of our peoples.

What are some barriers your community faced in accessing healthcare, both historically and during the COVID pandemic?

From a historical standpoint, one of the biggest barriers to healthcare was the displacement of indigenous Pacific Islanders from their land and the colonized diet and sedentary western lifestyles. Then came nuclear testing on our soil and ocean that have left many in the North Pacific sick for many generations. 
In the current pandemic, we continue to face these barriers and more. Many don’t trust the healthcare system while others struggle with language, cultural, or technology challenges. One of the strategies we are using to help bridge these divides is putting Pacific Islanders at the fore. We are partnering with doctors, nurses, and churches to help improve access to the vaccine and vaccine information.

Why has the pandemic hit your community especially hard?

Our health disparities in Washington state were not seen prior to COVID-19. When the pandemic hit, it was almost like a silent storm for Pacific Islander communities. Our little populations were filling up hospitals across the state. In some, more than half of the beds were filled by members from our community.

In Eastern Washington alone, 60% of all cases last June were Pacific Islanders. The devastating impact COVID-19 has had has forced the state to start looking at us as a unique racial community.

Pacific Islander Community Association’s Executive Director Joseph Seia
COVID-19 vaccine clinics like this one are helping to address vaccine disparities in Native Hawaiian & Pacific Islander communities. Photo courtesy Che Sehyun, Pacific Islander Community Association

How were you able to turn these numbers around?

We had to move fast. We did everything from testing people in their homes and community outreach to actually educating the health system on the solutions and strategies that would work in our community. If we didn’t take the initiative to offer vaccine access points, I’m afraid our community would have had nothing.

What has the COVID-19 pandemic taught your community?

In some ways this crisis illuminated the strength of our community. At the beginning of the pandemic, NHPIs, our Pasifika communities, weren’t getting a network of service or advocacy from providers, so we really had to create that for ourselves. This developed a tight network of leaders across the state that are committed to never letting something like COVID-19 happen to our community again.

What about vaccine access are you most excited and optimistic?

There are very real ways that this partnership is going to save lives. In our community, we are working in such a narrow window that vaccine access can save somebody’s life.

For example, one of our elders was scheduled for the COVID-19 vaccine two months ago. There was a transportation issue and unfortunately, he couldn't get his vaccine. He eventually got it but passed away before he was fully equipped against the virus. Because many of our traditions are oral traditions, every loss is such a hard hit to our community. When we lose one of our own, we lose the stewards of our culture and history.

Volunteers help their Pasifika community members get vaccinated. Photo courtesy Che Sehyun, Pacific Islander Community Association
A member of the community receives a COVID-19 vaccination. Photo courtesy Che Sehyun, Pacific Islander Community Association
After receiving his shot, a community member proudly displays his "I am Pasifika, I am Vaccinated" shirt. Photo courtesy Che Sehyun, Pacific Islander Community Association