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Pacific Islanders confront high rates of COVID-19 In many states

Joseph Keawe’aimoku Kaholokula
In many Western states, as well as Arkansas which has a large Marshallese population, these communities have virus rates that far exceed their share of the population.

Honolulu, HAWAII — About two weeks ago, an Arkansas resident who worked at a Tyson Foods factory died of COVID-19. The death was one of tens of thousands across the nation due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But to Melisa Laelan, the loss was especially worrisome. That’s because the person who died was the first reported Marshallese person to die of COVID-19 in the state. Laelan, the director of the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese, estimates the state is home to about 13,500 Marshallese residents, one of the largest concentrations in the U.S.

She has since watched the confirmed coronavirus cases climb for her community.

“All of a sudden we went from zero to 40,” she says. This week, Arkansas reported 46 total cases COVID-19 cases among those who identify as Native Hawaiian or another Pacific Islander ethnicity. Laelan suspects most, if not all, of those cases involve Marshallese residents, although that breakdown isn’t available.

Forty-six is a tiny fraction of the the 1.34 million coronavirus cases reported in numerous communities throughout the country.

But for Arkansas’ Pacific Islanders, that’s four times more than their share of the state’s population. The community makes up only about 0.3% of Arkansas’ population, according to the 2018 American Community Survey. But so far they comprise about 1.2% of coronavirus cases in the state, and 1.4% of deaths.

Multiple states are reporting high rates of COVID-19 in Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander communities. A Civil Beat review of state-level health department data found that indigenous Pacific peoples face disproportionate rates of COVID-19 in California, Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Utah, Arkansas and Washington.

Joseph Keawe‘aimoku Kaholokula, a professor and chairman of the Native Hawaiian Health program at the University of Hawaii medical school, recently co-wrote a paper on the disparities, highlighting the high rates in Utah, California, Oregon, Hawaii and King County, Washington.

Kaholokula says indigenous Pacific people are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 because of socioeconomic factors that have long gone unaddressed.

“The vulnerability has nothing to do with race and ethnicity. It has everything to do with conditions we are more likely to be in because of racism,” he says.

Read more at Honolulu Civil Beat