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Anchorage Pacific Islander community brings COVID-19 vaccines to church

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Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians have some of the lowest rates of vaccination against COVID-19 in Alaska — and highest rates of hospitalization and death. Community leaders have gotten creative to encourage vaccination.

That brought a clinic Feb. 23 to the Manai Fou Assembly of God Church in Airport Heights, where leaders teamed up with Anchorage’s health department to bring vaccines to a place where many Islanders feel at home. 

“Having it in a church setting is more comfortable, because this is what we grew up with,” said Ian Taula, a Samoan Anchorage resident who had just received his first dose of vaccine. 

Tuesday’s clinic had a different feel than most vaccine sites. A crew of three chefs in the kitchen chopped vegetables and sang along to Samoan music. Balloons hung in the entryway, and in the holding area where patients waited to make sure they didn’t have adverse reactions, there was a lavish table spread of sandwiches, fruit and lemon-infused water. 

“Especially in our culture: When there’s no food, I don’t think there’s a gathering,” said Judy Tanuvasa, a nurse and community leader who organized the clinic. Her husband is the pastor at the church. 

Vaccinations were open to anyone regardless of race, as long as they qualified under current state criteria.

“It’s not about one group being more important than the other but really recognizing the negative impact and the higher risks that they are, and that there’s just more challenges for them accessing more traditional sites,” said Anchorage Public Health Manager Christy Lawton.

State data shows only 350 Alaskans who identify as Pacific Islander or Native Hawaiian had received the vaccine as of Feb. 24. That data isn’t complete, but health officials said there’s a clear disparity.

Lawton said state numbers from January showed troubling numbers. 

“They were showing literally like 0% initially vaccinated,” Lawton said. 

That rate has improved: City data shows about 2% of the Islander population is now vaccinated. But that’s still just a tenth of the rate of the general population. 

“There is progress happening, but clearly, it’s a real outlier when compared to the other groups,” she said. 

The morning of Feb. 23, nearly all of the Manai Fou clinic visitors were Polynesian. The clinic offered a total of 80 vaccine appointments, about half of which were open to walk-in. It may not sound significant compared to the 144,000 people in the state who have received the vaccine. But for the Islander community, which numbers about 8,000 in Anchorage, the church clinic could boost current vaccination rates by 50%.

State data shows other racial groups, particularly the Black community, have also been getting vaccinated at much lower rates than the general population. Black community leaders said they’re also working on standing up at least one church vaccination site soon. 

Lawton said the idea of short-term vaccine clinics came up at a Zoom community conversation the city hosted. Then Lucy Hansen, Polynesian Association President, reached out to make it a reality. 

“They were one of the first ones that raised their hands and said, ‘Please come,’” Lawton said. 

Judy Tanuvasa convinced the Manai Fou church to donate the use of the church space and found volunteers for cooking. Tanuvasa, who’s a nurse at the Alaska Native Medical Center, took the whole week off work to help organize the clinic and volunteer with translation. 

That’s not always easy. Many Islanders don’t speak English as a first language, and some Western medical terms don’t easily translate into Samoan. The word ‘immunity,’ for example, requires a sentence-long explanation:

But for Tanuvasa, all the work has been worth it.

“I’m very, very happy with the outcome. Just sitting here this morning and watching people walk in to get their vaccination — it just warmed up my heart.”

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