Dr. Kapono Chong-Hanssen administers COVID-19 vaccines on July 10,
2020 in Kekaha, Hawai‘i. Chong-Hanssen supports a resolution introduced
by a member of the Honolulu City Council urging Hawai‘i government
agencies to go beyond minimum federal standards and get more specific
when collecting racial data in one of the most racially diverse state in
the nation. Chong-Hanssen said the pandemic underscores the need for
data that doesn’t lump together Pacific Islanders. (Photo courtesy of
Shersina Roby fills out a form to receive her second dose of the
COVID-19 vaccine dose while three-year-old Gezelle Fanny has a snack at
a vaccination clinic in Honolulu on July 14, 2021. The pandemic has
underscored the importance of collecting and reporting racial data.
Honolulu city councilwoman Esther Kia‘aina says the pandemic’s toll on
Pacific Islanders who are not Native Hawaiian inspired her to introduce
a resolution urging Hawai‘i government agencies to collect more specific
data about Pacific Islanders. (AP Photo/Jennifer Since Kelleher)
Some seek more boxes to check for "other" Pacific
By Jennifer Sinco Kelleher
The Associated Press
HONOLULU (AP) -- A few months into the pandemic, data showed Pacific
Islanders suffered the highest infection rates in Hawai‘i.
But what early numbers didn’t publicly show was which Pacific
Islanders in the diverse identification category -- which includes
people with ethnic roots in Samoa, Micronesia, and other islands but
excludes Native Hawaiians -- were affected the most.
In August 2020, when Hawai‘i recorded its greatest number of cases,
people who identify as Pacific Islander represented 24% of all COVID-19
cases but accounted for just 4% of the state’s population, according to
a report by the state Department of Health with academic and community
The health equity report, published in March of this year, showed
that the two single largest groups represented among Pacific Islander
COVID-19 cases were Samoan at 29% and Chuukese at 24%.
Before the detailed data was readily and widely available, Dr. Kapono
Chong-Hanssen on Kauai printed lists of people who checked the Pacific
Islander box and looked at last names in an attempt to figure out
specific racial backgrounds.
The feat was possible on a small island, he recalled, but it would
have been quicker and easier to target communities with educational
outreach in the languages they speak with more specific state data,
which provides information about Native Hawaiians but lumps together
other all other Pacific Islanders.
In the 1990s, prompted by concerns that Native Hawaiian students were
considered overrepresented in colleges when counted as Asian, Esther
Kia‘aina worked at the federal level to separate Native Hawaiian data
from Asian data. Since then, however, all other Pacific Islanders have
remained in one category.
Now a member of the Honolulu City Council, Kia‘aina introduced a
resolution adopted in June urging Hawai‘i government agencies to go
beyond minimum federal standards and get more specific when collecting
racial data in one of the most racially diverse states in the nation.
Of Hawai‘i’s 1.5 million residents, 38% are Asian -- mostly Japanese
and Filipino -- 26% are white, 2% are Black, and many people are
multiple ethnicities, according to U.S. census figures. Native Hawaiians
account for about 20% of the population.
"We’re geographically unique and we are culturally, racially,
ethnically very unique in comparison to the rest of the United States,"
said Chong-Hanssen, medical director of the Kauai Community Health
Center and a board member of the Association of Native Hawaiian
Physicians. "So the federal standards don’t really serve our public
health ... and other services."
Disaggregated data -- data that is broken down into smaller groupings
-- is also helpful now in the effort to urge people to get vaccinated,
The resolution provides separate categories for Samoan, Micronesian,
Tongan, Chamorro, and "other Pacific Islander." Categories also include
white, Black, American Indian or Alaska Native, Filipino, Japanese,
Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and "other Asian."
Even though the resolution isn’t binding, Kia‘aina said that the
agencies she has contacted so far are supportive. She said she plans to
send the resolution to city and state agencies, asking them to comply
"We’re doing this not only to get the data to determine funding
priorities, it’s also to promulgate policies to address the underlying
disparities for whatever reason," she said, "whether it be housing,
whether it be education, whether it be health."
On the Big Island, Dr. Wilfred Alik, who is from the Republic of the
Marshall Islands and speaks Marshallese, said he made it a point to
collect specific ethnicity data on his own when talking with a Pacific
Islander patient who tested positive.
While groups organized collectively as Asian and Pacific Islander can
bring strength in numbers to smaller communities, getting specific data
is helpful for contact tracing especially with language skills and
cultural sensitivity, said Alik, who works for Kaiser Permanente.
Early in the pandemic, We Are Oceania, a group that advocates for
Hawai‘i’s Micronesian communities, asked state health officials to
provide specific data for Pacific Islanders, said the group’s CEO, Josie
While they believed that data would be key to understanding how
people were affected by the virus, they also worried the data would
further stigmatize Micronesian people, who are often the targets of
racism in Hawai‘i, Howard said.
Stigmatization and privacy were also concerns for state health
officials, who already collect detailed, disaggregated data beyond
what’s recommended by the city council resolution, said Joshua Quint, an
epidemiologist with the Department of Health. There are limits on how to
responsibly release data, including privacy issues, especially when it
comes to small populations, he said.
That’s among the reasons they don’t break Pacific Islanders down in
what’s available on the department’s COVID-19 website, he said.
It’s also difficult to detect disparities when there aren’t good
population estimates for smaller groups, such as Chuukese people, Quint
In Hawai‘i, there are an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Micronesians, who
began migrating here in bigger numbers in the 1990s in search of
economic and educational opportunities, according to We are Oceania.
Numbers for people who are from Chuuk, one of the four states in the
Federated States of Micronesia, are harder to pinpoint.
When virus cases were first diagnosed in Hawai‘i, health officials
asked questions of those who tested positive that focused on their
travel histories, Quint said. But when community spread of the virus was
established, social disparities among racial and ethnic groups began to
Advocates say expanding the options in the ethnicity category is an
issue that goes beyond the pandemic.
"When we are lumped together ... when it comes to services, we’re
like in the back burner," said Elisapeta Alaimaleata, executive director
of the Le Fetuao Samoan Language Center.
Without specific data, it becomes harder to advocate for Samoan
language education services in Hawai‘i public schools, she said as an
The ability to mark a box that’s not simply "other," can have
benefits for personal identity, said Chong-Hanssen, who is half white, a
quarter Chinese, and a quarter Native Hawaiian, and grew up in Iowa.
"It helps the larger population, at least in Hawai‘i, if not in the
larger United States, understand that we exist," he said. "These
different types of Pacific Islanders are real people."
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