Melini Tagivava thought she might never get vaccinated against COVID-19. Though some of her family got sick from the virus last year, Tagivava, a Fijian American, said the thought of getting the vaccine scared her.
And part of that fear came from misinformation spread online.
“On social media, they were talking about how there were microchips inserted in these needles. For me and my siblings, we were like ‘No, we don’t want to take the vaccine because of that,’” Tagivava said. “And there was a lot of hype going around about the side effects that come with it.”
Despite rampant misinformation, Pacific Islanders and Asian Americans currently have some of the highest vaccination rates in Sacramento, according to county data.
But organizers fear those numbers may be overinflated.
“We wish that we could celebrate that as an accomplishment and a shining achievement of our work, but unfortunately I don’t think that’s the case,” said ‘Alisi Tulua, a project director at the Data Policy Lab at UCLA.
Sacramento County recently disaggregated its data, splitting the Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders category into two. About 68% of Asian Americans and 67% of Pacific Islanders have been vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the county’s data.
The high numbers are partially a result of intense outreach efforts to certain groups, like the Filipino community which had disproportionately high rates of COVID-19 earlier in the pandemic.
Still, organizers said people are struggling with the same vaccine hesitancy that Tagivava had.
“I’d definitely say a lot of people held off on it, because the way most of us are raised, it’s a natural herbal type of upbringing,” said Tagivava, who was raised in a religious household. “We just think it’s something that won’t really affect us in a way.”
Tagivava eventually got vaccinated, but mostly because she said she wanted to be able to travel back to Fiji to see her relatives soon.
“I just decided to take it, because our mom finally came to the decision that we should take it for our safety, and we wanted to take trips,” she said. “So that was one of our big highlights, finally getting over our fears and saying, ‘you know what, let’s just go get vaccinated.’”
Pacific Islander Rates May Be A Result of Errors, Organizers Fear
Tagivava and her family weren’t the only holdouts in their community — nor are they alone in other Pacific Islander communities.
Jimina Afuola, an advocacy coordinator at Empowering Pacific Islander Communities (EPIC) who is Samoan American, said the high numbers from Sacramento County don’t seem to match what she’s been seeing on the ground in her community, either.
“We’re still facing a lot of folks who are still vaccine hesitant — anti-vaxxers,” Afuola said. “We’ve still been dealing with a lot of the disparities within our own community and trying to work through that kind of barrier.”
The Data Policy Lab has been trying to keep more accurate statistics on Pacific Islander infection and vaccination rates.
Tulua said the Data Policy Lab estimates a vaccination rate closer to 45% for Pacific Islanders in California, a rate that would track closer with the vaccination rates of white people, African Americans and Latinos.
She added that she’s seen artificially high vaccination rates being reported for Pacific Islanders in other counties across the state.
According to an analysis of state data by the Los Angeles Times, 67% of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have received at least one dose of the vaccine — though the data hasn’t been disaggregated into two separate categories. California’s data shows the number of Pacific Islanders who have reported being vaccinated exceeds the state’s estimated population for this group.
She said numbers for Pacific Islanders vaccination rates are being inflated mostly because many counties in California don’t have accurate counts on the population of Pacific Islanders.
“The danger is that things will continue to be this way, if not make things worse,” Tulua said. “Imagine a county saying that the Pacific Islander community doesn’t need more resources because their vaccination rates are high and they’re already doing well, when that isn’t the case.”
In Sacramento County, health officials are now separating the Asian and Pacific Islander categories. But, the county also said “race/ethnic data are generally self-reported.”
Asian Americans are now categorized as “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent including, for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam." These are according to guidelines put forward by the National Center for Health Statistics.
Meanwhile, Pacific Islanders are categorized as “any person having origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa or other Pacific Islands.”
Another factor that she said might be inflating numbers is how people identify.
Filipinos are categorized as Asian Americans, not Pacific Islanders, though there has been some confusion over what category this ethnic group belongs to.
Asian Americans Have High Vaccination Rates For Many Reasons
For the Asian American community, advocates attribute the high rate of vaccinations to a number of factors.
Bobby Dalton Roy, who has been running an Asian American-specific testing site in South Sacramento, said the numbers are in part due to many Asian Americans working in healthcare and having come face-to-face with the direct impacts of COVID-19.
“When you’re impacted that closely, you are more likely to take precautionary measures to protect yourself, your family, your community and loved ones,” Roy said.
They also added that a more collectivist attitude — especially amongst more recently immigrated Asian American populations — might have also played a role in more people getting vaccinated.
Asian Americans were also a group that had the highest rates of mask wearing earlier in the pandemic.
Monika Lee of the California Pan Ethnic Health Network (CPEHN) said many Asian American community organizations partnered together to make sure there was in-language access and significant outreach was done to hard-to-reach communities.
“We think it’s absolutely the sustained ongoing efforts that community-based organizations have been doing,” Lee said. “It’s the door knocking, it’s setting up vaccine clinics week after week, it’s having trusted community members to deliver those messages in language if community members have questions.”
But Lee warned against over-generalizing Asian Americans, because they are one of the most broad categories that span many ethnicities and encompass a wide range of income levels. She said CPEHN is still pushing to have more of the data for Asian Americans disaggregated further to separate the group more precisely.
Doreena Wong, policy director at Asian Resources, said that she would caution against leaning too heavily on these higher numbers.
“An ongoing question we have had related to the seemingly higher vaccination rates for Asian Americans is that it may not truly reflect what is going on in our communities,” Wong wrote in an email. “So some sub-populations may have higher rates than others, i.e., Filipinos, [Southeast] Asians. Etc.”
Tulua at the Data Policy Lab said that imprecise data can create inflated numbers, especially when it comes to the Pacific Islander community.
“Last year in even reporting the death rates, some of the counties had to go back and clean up the data, because they found there were other communities that were reporting or that classified their data as Pacific Islander but they were not,” Tulua said.
As the delta variant spreads and case rates continue to climb, organizers doing boots-on-the-ground outreach will keep urging county officials to use different ways of quantifying vaccination rates in Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.
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