Oregon’s Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander populations continue to be disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. This group makes up just 0.5% of the state’s population, according to 2019 U.S. Census data. And they’ve consistently been ranked as one of the hardest-hit groups by the coronavirus since the Oregon Health Authority began tracking this type of information a little over a year ago.

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As vaccinations are ramping up across Oregon, a grassroots effort is making sure that Pacific Islanders aren’t left behind.

The Woven with Elders vaccination toolkit is a campaign focusing on vaccinating every Pacific Islander senior in the state. It was launched in March by a coalition of statewide Pacific Islander community groups through a partnership with Kaiser Permanente.

The Portland chapter of the United Territories of Pacific Islanders Alliance, or Utopia PDX, was one of the key players behind the toolkit. OPB’s All Things Considered host Tiffany Camhi spoke with board Co-chair Manumalo “Malo” Ala’ilima about the origins of the effort, the importance of elders in the Pacific Islander community and how the pandemic is continuing to affect this group in Oregon.

Tiffany Camhi: How exactly will this toolkit help get more Pacific Islanders vaccinated?

Manumalo Ala’ilima: Pacific Islanders are not a monolith. We are diverse, as we are vast. [We] inhabited the three regions known as Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. There are several island groups and languages for each of them, and each has a very different and unique migrant or immigrant status with the U.S. This determines the kind of access to health care and medical treatment that’s provided.

So we wanted a common theme to center our beloved cultural treasures: [that’s] our elders. Our elders carry our wisdom of our cultural lifeways, pathways, languages, traditions, customs and practices. We wanted to shift the mentality and narrative of elders being expendable. Many politicians last year were willing to sacrifice them instead of honoring them. We know who we are. We know who we value. And even if the Western world wants to sacrifice our elders, we won’t do that to our own community.

Language accessibility is what this toolkit provides. We currently have our English version published and will be publishing translated toolkits in CHamoru, Chuukese, iTaukei Fijian, Kosraean, Marshallese, Pohnpeian, Olelo Hawaii, Samoan, Tongan, Palauan, Pingelapese and Yapese.

Camhi: The past 12 months have been really rough for the Pacific Islander community here in the Northwest. In your opinion, why has this community been hit so hard?

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Ala’ilima: We’ve been hit hard because we’re a small population and we are a part of the essential workforce. We have some of our community members that work in our food processing and packaging industry. We have members that work in the warehouse industry. So if you’re ordering things on Amazon, they’re the ones that are getting your shipments together. Many of us work in long-term health care facilities and adult care facilities. Then add the layer of this essential workforce coming back to a home that is multi-generational and multifamily. You can kind of add the numbers of how an infection could spread.

Camhi: Before the pandemic, Utopia PDX focused its efforts on creating safe spaces for queer and trans Pacific Islanders in Oregon. Over the past year, it’s transitioned to include all Pacific Islander communities. Why did your organization decide to shift its mission and how was that transition?

Ala’ilima: It was a no-brainer to immerse ourselves into what is direct service. It was without hesitation that we would step up to the plate and help serve our community to ensure that we helped slow the spread of the coronavirus.

By prioritizing our elders, we are remembering who we are as Pasifika peoples: our culture, our heritage and our values. Even if that meant that [Utopia PDX] had to pivot from our original mission, our elders should be able to live out the winter of their lives with dignity and the utmost respect because they’ve earned it and deserve it. Vaccinating our elders gives them a fighting chance against COVID-19.

That means so much more than the grief, suffering and sorrowful loss of many in their generation and their surviving families. In my case, [the lives of] my eldest brother, multiple cousins and two nephews were all drastically shortened due to COVID-19.

Camhi: The Woven with Elders campaign already has a handful of vaccination clinics under its belt?

Ala’ilima: They’ve been rather successful. We’ve vaccinated nearly 1,000 of our community elders in three counties: Multnomah County, Marion County and Washington County.

Camhi: Oregon Health Authority vaccination data shared in a recent state legislative hearing showed that Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders have the highest vaccination rates in Oregon. Do you think the agency’s data is an accurate reflection of what’s actually happening in your community?

Ala’ilima: I really want to believe that is the case and that the data surrounding this vaccination rate is accurate and not grossly inflated. My hope is that my community is taking this opportunity to become vaccinated because it is the right thing to do for themselves and their households.

Camhi: What have you learned from serving the Northwest Pacific Islander community during the pandemic?

Ala’ilima: We’re resilient. We convened the Oregon Pacific Islander Coalition in April 2020 in response to COVID-19. It’s a collection of 10 community-based organizations. And it’s beautiful. If you come to one of our free COVID-19 testing and vaccine clinics, you would see a lot of the love and care that our volunteers and staff [put into] helping our elders.

Hear the full conversation in the audio player above.

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