For Immediate Release
July 2, 2020
Cultivating Collaboration on COVID-19 Across the Pacific
Special Session on the Pandemic’s Impact on Island Communities in the United States
Up until now, health ministers, directors, and secretaries in the U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands (USAPIs) have focused much of their COVID-19 response efforts locally. But the coronavirus situation across the Pacific Ocean among islanders living on the U.S. mainland has become a cause for concern.

In an effort to link USAPI health officials with their stateside counterparts, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) led a special meeting of stakeholders in collaboration with the Pacific Islands Health Officers’ Association (PIHOA). 

USAPI health officials from American Samoa, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the Republic of Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia were joined by state health officials from Alaska, Arkansas, Hawai’i, Oregon, and Washington. 

Stakeholders discussed how the current risk of COVID-19 in the states might impact repatriation plans for USAPI residents stranded in Hawai’i, Guam, and the U.S. mainland. 

Dr. Richard Brostrom, who is part of the CDC IMS State Coordination Task Force (SCTF) for the US Pacific Islands , called repatriation of stranded citizens one of the critical issues facing health officials on both sides of the Pacific. “When we’re conducting our weekly one-on-one calls with each USAPI jurisdiction, there has been a big effort to repatriate citizens who are stranded. This is clearly the highest risk activity for introducing the pandemic to some of these COVID-free islands,” said Dr. Brostrom. 

Over the past few weeks, the repatriation of residents was successful in the RMI, Palau, FSM, and American Samoa with all COVID-19 test results coming out negative. Despite its success, health officials and federal agencies remain concerned about the risk repatriation flights hold.
Stakeholders also reviewed the latest COVID-19 data for Pacific Islanders in the states and discussed possible ways to improve the effectiveness of mainland programs to strengthen outreach efforts to our high-risk populations.

High rates of COVID-19 in Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities were reported by health officials in multiple states. “We definitely see communities of color having a significant portion of impact in Washington State, specifically Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders age-adjusted rates that are almost about seven times higher than non-Hispanic whites in terms of cases of COVID and hospitalization,” said Lacy Fehrenbach, Deputy Secretary of the Washington State Health Department.

Pacific Islanders suffer from health disparities and socio-economic challenges that put them at higher risk for contracting COVID-19. Dr. Anne Zink, Chief Medical Officer for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services shared statewide coronavirus data that found Pacific Islanders impacted by the virus in Alaska, like the Native American population there, Pacific Islanders are also living in multigenerational homes with little room for social distancing.

States health officials are bolstering outreach efforts to Pacific Islanders in some of the states’ more hard-to-reach communities. Dr. Bruce Anderson, Director of the Hawaii State Health Department, said they are constantly deploying public health nurses and epidemiologists into these communities to share COVID-19 information. “We have been very active with contact tracing and sending out swab teams to those very hard to reach areas, and it’s a major undertaking when we do that, sometimes we have 100 people out in a community helping to provide outreach and so we’re still working on that,” said Dr. Anderson. 

Outreach efforts in the states can be strengthened even further with the help of health authorities back in the USAPI. Lilian Shirley, Oregon State Director of Public Health, expressed her appreciation for continued collaboration with USAPI health officials during the COVID-19 pandemic. Assistance from the RMI Ministry of Health and Human Services Secretary Jack Niedenthal and CNMI Commonwealth Healthcare Corporation CEO Esther Muna has been particularly effective. “They were very helpful the first time we really realized that this community of Pacific Islanders in Oregon is not trusting us to do the contact tracing and they gave us some really good cultural advice that we were able to use.”

As the COVID-19 situation continues to unfold in Pacific Islander communities on the U.S. mainland, continued collaboration with USAPI counterparts will be key to successfully stopping the spread of the virus throughout the Pacific Region.
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