Advocates for ethnic Pacific Islanders and Filipinos on Oahu applauded the multi-agency effort to reach into their communities and provide them with “low barrier” COVID-19 testing, quarantine and related services, calling it long overdue.
State Department of Health statistics show the percentage of Pacific Islanders and Filipinos who test positive for the coronavirus is much greater than the percentage of their populations.
Three of every 10 people in Hawaii who test positive are categorized as Pacific Islanders, excluding native Hawaiians, even though they make up only 4% of the state’s population, Health Department figures show.
Filipinos make up 17% of those testing positive even though they account for 16% of the population.
By contrast, Caucasians represent 25% of the population but only 15% of those testing positive while native Hawaiians comprise 21% of the population but just 14% of the positive tests, and Japanese make up 15% of the population but only 8% of positive cases.
U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who attended the Tuesday press conference held by Mayor Kirk Caldwell and included Gov. David Ige and Lt. Gov. Josh Green, called the proportionate share of Pacific Islanders becoming infected “astounding.”
“That’s why we want to make sure our surge testing is allowing us to give some visibility into those communities,” Adams said.
Caldwell said the city is working with the federal and state governments to blanket the island with testing opportunities with the goal of administering 5,000 tests a day during the two-week lockdown period, targeting those hardest hit by and least able to cope with the pandemic.
The city will help the state with contact tracing and, when necessary, temporarily house at Honolulu hotels those who need to quarantine or isolate because they cannot do so on their own, Caldwell said.
Councilman Joey Manahan, who represents the Kalihi area that’s seen a larger share of COVID-19 positive clusters, said that he, Caldwell and other city officials have been asking the state since April to be able to assist in the testing efforts by paying for testing at community health centers.
That’s where many immigrants without much income go for their medical care, Manahan said Tuesday afternoon. “It was a free testing program for people who didn’t have the means to pay for something, low barrier,” he said. That offer was rebuffed by Department of Health officials who were skeptical about the company that the city had enlisted to help with the testing but then offered no alternative solution, he said.
Manahan also criticized the Health Department for declining to test all residents in the Kalihi Valley Housing project after a cluster formed there, leading to more positive cases.
“In this community, we located the health centers where they are precisely so that the people who are in housing have access to that health care and they’re used to going there for that health care and that information,” he said. “It would have made sense to test there.”
Manahan said one reason why the two ethnic groups show high instances of positive cases is because they comprise a large share of the first-responder and front-line service jobs such as health care providers and hotel industry employees.
“So yeah, they’re on the front lines getting exposed,” he said.
Josie Howard, program director of the Micronesian advocacy group We Are Oceania, said that after being approached by Caldwell’s office about the partnership, the nonprofit group was happy to help the program however it can.
“We’re going to provide language services and we are also doing outreach into the community,” Howard said.
A key to the program will be that it won’t just provide testing, but also temporary housing for those in need of isolation.
“They need to go into the concentrated areas and we need to continue to make sure that there’s enough spaces to isolate the people,” Howard said.
Community advocate Amy Agbayani said she has been working with the Interagency Council for Immigrants and the Task Force on Immigration to help obtain CARES funding for those in need.
Agbayani, like Manahan, said Filipinos and Pacific Islanders are overrepresented in the front-line essential service and hotel industries.
They also have a higher tendency to live in multigenerational family settings that make it easier for a virus to spread, she said. And, because they are immigrants, they face language barriers that often make it difficult for them to learn about the services available to them, Agbayani said.
Immigrants are often excluded from other types of programs, including certain federal CARES Act benefits.