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Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders fight for COVID-19 vaccine access in Washington

The Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community is disproportionally impacted by COVID-19 in Washington, according to the state Department of Health.

FEDERAL WAY, Wash. — The Alamea is a thorny, spiny, tough starfish in Samoa.

“We have a saying in Samoan tradition, and it is, ‘E fofo le alamea le alamea,’ which translates as the spiny starfish heals itself,” said Joseph Seia, executive director of the Pacific Islander Community Association of Washington.

It’s a saying Seia lives by; it is even in the signature of his emails. He leans on the saying as he educates and advocates for his community.

“We are experiencing a different pandemic than other communities,” Seia told KING 5.

Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders are fighting a different battle against COVID-19 than most communities.

“In our community, our elders are sacred treasures, and so, I think to lose that many elders in such a short time is pretty devastating,” he explained.

According to the most recent data from the Washington State Department of Health, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders have a four times higher case rate of COVID-19 than white populations.

Hospitalization rates are 10 times higher, and death rates from COVID-19 are nearly six times higher.

“There’s an othering that happens there,” said Seia. “Like, your life is not worth it so you have to actually fight for a vaccine, right?”

As more and more elders died from COVID-19, Seia called for the institutions in place to make a change. He reached out to healthcare providers and fought for his community’s life.

“When we say it’s a life and death situation, it really is a life and death situation because we are racing against this,” said Seia. “If our people are dying at six times the rate, that literally means every week our elders are dying. Vaccine access is a critical issue for our community.”

Seia told KING 5 the state’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout plan left out historically marginalized communities.

“The way [the COVID-19 vaccine] rollout has occurred, it did not have any race analysis,” said Seia. “If King County public health is declaring that race is one of the biggest factors in determining the health of people, and that was not included in the rollout, accommodated for at all, you know, your rollout is, I’m going to say it. Your rollout is racist."

Seia’s fight brought partnerships with health care providers like PeaceHealth, Swedish and more. They created popup vaccine clinics across the state from Federal Way to Spokane, cutting through language and technological barriers and brought the lifesaving vaccine to his community.

Because like the Alamea, that tough starfish, Seia knew he had the power to heal his community.

“The spiny starfish heals itself, but it’s a belief that we’re the stewards of our own health,” he said. “Nobody else is going to heal us. We have the ability to heal ourselves.”

While hundreds of elders have been vaccinated due to the Pacific Islander Community Association’s work, that work is not done yet.

Seia said they’ll keep going until that fight is over.

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