Officials step up efforts to expand COVID-19 vaccine access to underserved communities

·5 min read

Jun. 8—Public health and community officials say they are continuing to step up efforts to expand COVID-19 vaccine access to underserved populations as newly released data confirms that socioeconomic disparities remain top barriers.

CJ Johnson, who is part of the state Department of Health's COVID-19 Community Outreach and Public Health Education team, said they are working to partner with more nonprofits and community groups to expand vaccine outreach. DOH has worked with organizations such as the Filipino Community Center and Papa Ola Lokahi, as well as expanded its mobile units through Project Vision Hawaii, he said. But Johnson acknowledged that DOH doesn't always have to be the face of vaccinations and defers to the expertise and cultural knowledge that many nonprofits bring to the table, including finding volunteers who speak the language and having a rapport with community members.

"One of the (challenges we're facing ) is motivation. What ends up being the difference in motivation is the messenger, " he said. "It's a work in progress. These health barriers are generational. They didn't happen overnight. Trying to respond to them is an exercise in triage."

The data, released Monday by DOH, showed that respondents least likely to be vaccinated included Native Hawaiians, Filipinos and those living in lower-income households. The survey, which polled nearly 500 Hawaii residents from April 20 to May 3, also found that a key factor in determining residents' responses to COVID-19 vaccines hinged on whether they believed the pandemic's primary threat was to health or the economy.

Of the respondents surveyed by Anthology Research, 68 % received at least one vaccine dose while just 9 % said they would never get it. Data also confirmed disparities among ethnic groups—while 71 % of Japanese and 68 % of Caucasian respondents were more likely to be fully vaccinated, those numbers dropped to 49 % for Native Hawaiians and 40 % for Filipinos.

In households earnings less than $50, 000 a year, 55 % of respondents were vaccinated. But that number increased to 78 % for house ­-holds with an annual income exceeding $100, 000. Additionally, 75 % of respondents with a college degree were likely to be fully vaccinated, compared with 47 % without one.

Several officials agreed that the survey's findings are not new or surprising, but instead confirm the state of public health in Hawaii for generations. The newly released data also echo maps that track vaccination rates by ZIP code that DOH released last week, as well as a statewide poll reflected in the most recent Community Pulse Survey, conducted last month by SMS Research & Marketing Service Inc. of Honolulu.

Sheri Daniels, executive director of Papa Ola Lokahi, a nonprofit that works to improve the health and well-being of Native Hawaiians and is an integral part of the Native Hawaiian & Pacific Islander Hawaii COVID-19 Response, Recovery and Resilience Team, said it's imperative to expand vaccine outreach to underserved communities, particularly because they are often the ones with higher infection rates. Daniels said the nonprofit continues to help and support community groups in improving and diversifying vaccine messaging by featuring Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander musicians, performers, influencers and kupuna. Messages are in different languages and on a variety of platforms, including TikTok and Facebook. The group also has organized and supported more pop-up vaccine clinics, including working with the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to host vaccinations on homestead land.

"If communities do not trust, you're not going to go anywhere. I really implore the systems and the state to really take a solid look at what that relationship with community truly is, " Daniels said. "This issue is not just the Department of Health. I believe there are pockets and individuals in the department that are trying to create spaces of change. However, I think the overarching, bigger number of the system really doesn't have the ability to pivot as easily. That's great that there's some agents, but I think those voices are not as loud or strong."

Agnes Malate, who coordinates the Filipino Community Center's vaccine efforts, said it has vaccinated nearly 2, 000 people, many of whom are Filipino, since March. It has a contract with DOH for community outreach and has partnered with Kalihi-Palama Health Center, Kaiser Permanente and Project Vision Hawaii to organize pop-up vaccine clinics about once a week at the FilCom in Waipahu, churches and other gathering places. Malate, director of UH Manoa's Health Careers Opportunity Program, said it plans to continue holding at least one pop-up a week and is also looking to be creative in making these clinics family-friendly and more of a gathering by offering food, such as halo-halo.

When Malate and other volunteers, many of whom speak Tagalog or Ilocano, had referred residents to mass vaccination sites, some told them they'd rather wait until the FilCom or their church had doses available.

"We create an environment where they feel welcome. They're not just there to get a shot, but they're surrounded by people who care about them. That's not to say the larger vaccination sites don't have that, but I think there's really a sense of being partners in their own health, " she said. "The pandemic is an opportunity to engage the community to be part of and create something that would better serve all of us. What we hope to see is that it becomes integrated into the system."------Jayna Omaye covers ethnic and cultural affairs and is a corps member with Report for America, a national serv ­ice organization that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues and communities.------

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