When Catherine ‘Ofa Mann first came down with COVID-19 in June, she felt like she just needed a little rest and water. Her cough was minor, but breathing was hard. That’s when she went to a doctor.
“The doctor at the urgent care took one look at me and he said, ‘Oh my goodness, you need oxygen,’” she remembered, before the doctor sent her to the hospital for a couple of days.
When Mann, an immigrant from Tonga and a leader in the Pacific Islander community in Sacramento, came home to recover, she started realizing how rampant the disease was in her community.
“My niece called me, and said ‘Sorry to hear that you are sick with COVID. I wanted to come and visit. But guess what? The next day, my whole family went down with it.’”
As cases of COVID-19 increase around California and the country, people of color continue to bear the burden of the virus, with Latinos and Black residents suffering higher case and death rates. But Pacific Islander and Native Hawaiians have the highest prevalence of the disease.
A CapRadio analysis of Sacramento County and state data indicates COVID-19 is most prevalent among this ethnic group, which includes immigrants and descendents of people of Oceanic nations, such as Tonga, Fiji and the Marshall Islands.
“Most Pacific Islanders I’ve talked to know someone who has COVID, was really sick with it, or known someone that died with it. That’s how small our community is,” said Lisa Hafoka, ‘Ofa Mann’s daughter.
Hafoka works as a COVID-19 contract-tracer, and she’s also heading up education efforts to bring down the rates of COVID-19 among Pacific Islander communities in Sacramento.
The latest census data show there are roughly 20,000 people of Pacific Islander and Native Hawaiian descent in the county, about 1.3% of the total population.
Because of the small size of the community in Sacramento, the COVID-19 rates may not be stable because a small number of new cases “would have greater influence on their rate compared to a larger population,” County Public Health Officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye wrote in an emailed statement.
But Dr. Raynald Samoa, who leads the national Pacific Islander COVID-19 Response Team, says even though the numbers of the ethnic community are small, they’re a “barometer for the nation,” because the highest affected group is a good indicator of how well the United States is handling the pandemic.
“We may be a small part of the U.S, but it’s one that tells the story of what the U.S. is experiencing as a whole,” Dr. Samoa said, adding that’s especially true in regards to working class people.
Dr. Samoa says people from Oceanic nations are vulnerable to the virus because many are essential workers.
“Just like other communities of color, there’s a significant percentage that live in multigenerational homes. And there’s a lot of crowding and not as stringent worker protections in the industries that are overrepresented by Pacific Islanders,” he said.
He also says, recently, community members have gotten sick from going to the funerals of people who have died of COVID-19.
“It’s somewhat of a set-up in that there’s a high likelihood that COVID is transmitted to other family members of the deceased, and then you’re bringing everybody into the same room, because that’s what Pacific people do, is we come together to support each other,” he said.
COVID-19 safety protocols are hard for Pacific Islanders, he said, because they are very community oriented. But he says COVID-19 education can work within cultural norms to keep people safe.
“The Pacific way is when there is adversity that we show up for each other. And that’s the underlying value that we should hold true to,” he said. “And that showing up for each other looks different today. That it looks like wearing a mask, it looks like reducing our physical contact.”
Community-Led COVID-19 Education Work
Soon after ‘Ofa Mann moved to Sacramento in the 1990s, she started an organization to serve the Pacific Islander community called TOFA or To’utupu’o e ‘Otu Felenite Association, which means “Friendly Islands Youth.” Recently, a lot of her community members here have been falling ill. Some of them are dying.
“A lot of our families don’t want to talk about it. They don’t want to say that they have it. And they take care of their own. Because they heard that people go to the hospital and they die,” she said.
Mann says many people rely on herbal remedies to treat the illness, like boiling leaves or the “bark of a tree.”
Through a grant from the city of Sacramento which uses federal coronavirus stimulus act dollars, TOFA is educating families from places such as Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and the Marshall Islands about how to prevent COVID-19 transmission.
Hafoka, Mann’s daughter, runs the online program through the nonprofit Asian Resources. They reach out to families one-by-one, and ask TOFA’s young Pacific Islander members to lead Zoom sessions. They make them fun, by incorporating online quizzes.
“The people that we’re reaching out to, we have a personal connection with… We are all on the same cultural level,” said Hafoka, adding that some of their health workers do the COVID-19 education in their native language. “It would probably mean more to them because it comes from someone like us.”
Hafoka says they work with everyone from church leaders to high-school football moms, encouraging people to keep family gatherings down and do activities outdoors.
Stephanie Nguyen, executive director of Asian Resources, says that’s exactly why she sought out the city funding for ethnic communities to take the lead in educating their own.
A “blanket approach was ineffective in reaching the vulnerable communities,” Nguyen said. “Going through a community leader gets us one step closer to them and giving them the correct information.”
Asian Resources is also working with the Japanese, Hmong, Chinese, Filipino and Mien-speaking populations in Sacramento.
The education work will continue until the end of December, but organizers hope funding can continue even after a vaccine becomes available.
Heidi Quenga, who is part of the Pacific Islander Response team in Southern California, says the members of her community are volunteering to get COVID-19 safety messaging out via faith leaders and ethnic radio stations.
“I don’t want us to be the number one racial group when it comes to being the highest infected,” Quenga said. “We want to change that curve. … We want to be back to our daily lives.”