ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians have been the groups hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic in Alaska, but state data show they are also the least likely to be vaccinated.
The state’s online vaccination tracker showed just 143 Alaska residents who identify as Pacific Islanders or Native Hawaiians were vaccinated out of 84,000 Alaska residents as of last Wednesday, Alaska Public Media reported.
The figure indicates those in the islander population are about 10 times less likely to be vaccinated than the general population, while the most recent state data on mortality show Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians are 10 times more likely to die of COVID-19.
Nurse Judy Tanuvasa, a Samoan community leader, said her community has not been adequately addressed by state officials. She said she knows of only four community members who have received vaccinations.
Tanuvasa, who has given dozens of vaccine shots to patients at the Alaska Native Medical Center, said she has seen the effectiveness of healthcare infrastructure designed for Alaska Natives.
Alaska Natives also have experienced high rates of death and hospitalization from COVID-19. But in contrast to Pacific Islanders, they benefit from the tribal health system.
Health officials said they are working to correct the inequity, but the issue is complex and includes factors such as language. Some Pacific Islanders do not speak English as a first language, especially older adults who are currently eligible for vaccinations.
The state’s vaccination website does not offer translated information.
“It’s not just the Samoan language — there’s Tongan language, and then there’s Hawaiian, and then there’s Fijian, there’s Palau — there’s so many of Pacific Islanders here,” said Lucy Hansen, president of the Polynesian Association of Alaska.
Anchorage Health Director Heather Harris said there are ongoing efforts to correct for inequities that officials observed in the data.
The state last week moved to give Anchorage more control over how vaccinations are allocated, which will allow the municipality to address racial inequity, Harris said.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.