In LA County, Pacific Islanders Are Dying From Coronavirus At A Rate 12 Times Higher Than Whites. These Leaders Are Fighting Back

Dr. Raynald Samoa, an endocrinologist at City of Hope, heads a team of Pacific Islander leaders from around the country who are responding to the pandemic. (Nicholaus Arnzen)

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No other group in California is dying from the coronavirus at a higher rate than Pacific Islanders — a painful statistic that's shaking up tight-knit communities of Samoans, Tongans and Native Hawaiians up and down the state.

And no other hub has been worse-hit than Los Angeles County, home to 11 of the 17 Pacific Islanders who've died in the state, according to public health data.

Compton-based pastor Pausa Thompson said he knows or recognizes most of those who have died in the community.

"We are very, very connected," said Thompson, head pastor at Dominguez Samoan Congregational Christian Church. "I can trace the connections even to where their villages are back home."


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Pacific Islanders account for a small fraction of the 1,700-plus deaths posted statewide. But the death toll is staggering for a state population of Pacific Islanders that stands shy of roughly 120,000, according to census data.

Using recent figures from the California Department of Public Health and data from the L.A. County Department of Public Health*, LAist found that:

  • In L.A. County, the death rate for Pacific Islanders is 71 deaths per 100,000 people.
  • The death rate for Pacific Islanders in L.A. County is 12 times higher than it is for whites, 9 times higher than for Asians, 7 times higher than for Latinos, 5 times higher than for African Americans
  • In L.A. County, Pacific Islanders are seeing an infection rate of 840 cases per 100,000 people. Latinos have the next highest prevalence of cases: 114 per 100,000.
  • Statewide, Pacific Islanders are more than three times as likely as whites and Latinos to die from the disease and nearly twice as likely to die as African Americans.
* State data is not age-adjusted
** County data is age-adjusted and does not account for 2% of overall deaths.

"It's very, very worrisome," said Paul Simon, chief science officer at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. "It really demands that we work much more actively with this community and I think the wheels are already in motion on that."

THE 'LEAST PACIFIC' THING TO DO

The disproportionate impact on Pacific Islanders has saddened but doesn't surprise Dr. Raynald Samoa, an endocrinologist and assistant professor at City of Hope in Duarte. He heads a national COVID-19 response team of community leaders and health experts that was convened earlier this month to help sickened Pacific Islanders and to also create an action plan.

"The pandemic is unmasking the current conditions of poor health access and lower socioeconomic conditions," Samoa said.

Samoa said that Pacific Islanders have a high prevalence of underlying conditions that are not always well-treated and may put them at higher risk of mortality: diabetes, hypertension and cancer.

A couple of factors may also be exposing Pacific Islanders to the virus more than other groups. Samoa said many are working through the pandemic in "essential" fields like food services, airport security and warehouses.

Another issue is the communal nature of Pacific Islander culture, which lends itself to living in large, multi-generational households that can make it hard to contain the spread of the virus.

Part of the work of his response team is locating potential quarantine facilities in areas with high concentrations of Pacific Islanders — in California, but also in Colorado, Utah, Nevada and Oregon — especially in the event of a second wave of infections. But some may recoil at the idea, he said.

"To ask a family member to quarantine themselves, to leave them during times of illness, is one of the least Pacific things to do," Samoa said. "Families have had to move their relatives to a motel. And it was crushing for them."

MAKING SURE THEY'RE COUNTED

As terrible an impact as COVID-19 has already had on Pacific Islanders, community leaders fear it's not the full picture because not enough people are getting tested.

The problem is two-fold, according to Kawen Young, executive director for the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Alliance based in Gardena, who is also working with Samoa, the physician, on the national response team.

Kawen Young, executive director of the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Alliance, works with community leaders in Southern California fighting COVID-19. (Photo courtesy of Kawen Young)

Young said there's the mindset among many Pacific Islanders that "'Oh, if we test positive, they'll look at our family as the sick family or think we caused other families to catch the virus."

At the same time, tests have been hard to come by in the poorer neighborhoods where many Pacific Islanders live.

Young said that she and other local leaders have been working with public health officials to map out where mobile testing would reach the most Pacific Islanders. Young suggests cities like Hawthorne, Lenox, Inglewood and Long Beach.

They've also pressed public health officials to ensure they're disaggregating COVID-19 data and accurately collecting information on Pacific Islanders.

"We are doing what we are doing to make sure our numbers are being shown, to make sure we're counted," Young said.

Simon said that the department is heeding the "wisdom" of community leaders like Young and not only collecting the information on Pacific Islanders but publicizing it as part of a newly-released report looking at the racial inequities exposed by coronavirus.

"The community had sensitized me to the issue two, three weeks ago," Simon said. "They have reminded me of the need to focus on their community, which no question we should be doing. But it's challenging in a place like Los Angeles County with 10 million residents."

TRUST IN THE PEWS

One recommendation by Young and others is that churches possibly be used as testing sites, or places to quarantine.

Pastor Thompson has already offered his church hall in Compton for either purpose and is hoping more faith leaders in the community will follow suit.

"If you're looking for somewhere that's trusted in the community for something like that to happen, it would be the churches," Thompson said.

Pastor Pausa Thompson has volunteered his church hall in Compton for testing and quarantining. (Mel Ponder)

Thompson has been using his influential role in the community to promote social distancing when he communicates with congregants over Zoom or over Facebook.

He said people are abiding by stay-at-home orders but it's been a struggle, especially when they've been asked to participate in funerals remotely.

"This is one of the highest paramount occasions in our culture where you can pay your last respects," Thompson said. "So even the grieving process has been affected immensely. It's changed everything about the way people respond to their faith and their culture at this time."

In the pandemic, Thompson has also found himself counseling those sick with the coronavirus and their families by using FaceTime. And he's been thinking a lot about how he can help prevent the chronic conditions that may make his community easier prey for the virus. He wants to speak out on unhealthy eating habits and irregular checkups.

"How do I keep my community healthy?" Thompson said. "This adds on a weight of responsibility as a leader in the community to do much more of that."

GIVING COVID-19 A FACE

In the meantime, Dr. Raynald Samoa is working to gather best practices on combating COVID-19 and sharing them with his colleagues on the national response team.

He said what's been disturbing to him is that Pacific Islanders in New Zealand who share similar socioeconomic and health characteristics with those in the United States have much lower death rates and caseloads.

"In New Zealand, there was a lot more aggressive testing. There was an earlier action to isolate," Samoa said.

Samoa is also helping to put a face on the pandemic — his.

Despite his best efforts at avoiding the virus, Samoa got sick with COVID-19 in March and quarantined himself from his family for several weeks. He's been symptom-free as of April 3.

He shared his journey on social media because he wanted to help rid people of their fear and shame around a positive diagnosis.

"I'm somewhat introverted, so I don't like to share details of my personal health," Samoa said. "But I think it was important, especially with my community to show people that this was not a hoax. This is real."