Nationwide, COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting communities of color. In Utah, Pacific Islanders–people of Hawaiian, Tongan, Samoan, Marshallese, and Fijian descent–have the second highest infection rate in the state. 

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Caption: KUTV: MacKenzie Ryan reports{{ }}

Several hot spots have popped up this summer. The biggest one is in Salt Lake County where Pacific Islanders now have the highest rate of COVID-19 infection. 

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The 2News investigative team examined what’s going on behind the numbers and learned how this tight-knit community is fighting back. 

Pacific Islander Family’s Survival

“I’m so worried,” said  Luisa Auva’a Tupou of Bountiful, “Experiencing COVID and thinking about our older Pacific Islanders experiencing it has been very difficult.” 

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Like many of Utah’s Pacific Islanders, Tupou lives in an inter-generational home with her husband, two children, and her mother. 

Her family was already living in quarantine; only she and her husband would leave their house to go to the grocery store. 

In early June, Tupou tested positive for coronavirus. 

Her husband and her mother tested positive shortly thereafter, despite using paper plates and living on separate floors of the house. 

In her dark moments, Tupou thought of the older generation in her community. 

When I was lying downstairs and I was in so much pain, just so miserable,” she says, I thought to myself, ‘How are our matua–parents and our grandparents–going to fight this off when it’s been so difficult to me and I’m 31?’

Now Tupou is providing outreach through the Utah Pacific Islander Health Coalition because COVID is ravaging her community. 

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“We’re being affected because of how our cultural practices are ingrained in who we are and how we gather,” Tupou explains. 

Family Is ‘Defined Very Differently’

Community leaders told 2News in Pacific Islander culture, family not only comes first, but families tend to be bigger and include multiple generations in one home. 

“The family unit is definitely defined very differently,” explained Tupou.

In traditional American families, the family unit is thought of as parents and their children, Tupou said. 

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In Pacific Islander families, the family unit is parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and children. 

And it’s cause for misunderstanding when we talk about isolating out away from society, they think it’s their family of the 70 of them.

People from Different Countries, One Interconnected Network

“It’s hard because we are all related,” explained Oreta Tupola, director of the Utah County Pacific Islander Health Coalition. 

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Tupola, who is Samoan, is married to a Tongan man. Even though their ancestry is different, she says they have connections throughout their community. 

Anytime we lose someone, even if they’re not blood-related, they’re connected.

“I’m afraid because when someone loses someone, we all lose someone,” Tupola says. 

Direction from Religious Leaders and the Health Department Clashes

Many of Utah’s Pacific Islanders are deeply religious. 

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Tupou says her culture values guidance from ecclesiastical leaders above all else. 

Therefore, if houses of worship are having services, Pacific Islanders will go. 

Gatherings Are a Significant Part of Pacific Islander Culture

Deeply rooted in our culture is to gather,” Tupou said, explaining that weddings and funerals are still happening in the Pacific Islander community.

Multiple community leaders told 2News that putting aside gatherings, something so foundational to Pacific Islander culture, has been difficult. 

“It shows in the numbers of Pacific Islanders who have been affected,” Tupou explains. 

A Look at the Numbers

The figures from the Utah Department of Health are alarming. Pacific Islanders make up less than 2% of Utah’s population but they have almost 4% of the COVID-19 cases. 

The community has had more than 130 hospitalizations and 13 deaths. 

Now, a new hot spot is growing rapidly in Salt Lake County. These 15 communities have the highest numbers of Pacific Islanders in the county. 

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And this is where COVID-19 cases are running rampant, putting these communities at greater risk. 

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Leaders Ask for More County, State COVID-19 Data 

West Valley City Council Member Jake Fitisemanu said the county and state data isn’t granular enough for leaders to make decisions. 

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For example, Salt Lake County data shows infection rates and the number of positive cases per zip code.

However, specific communities that are affected — such as specific religious communities and athletic groups — are not identified.

Nor does the data report the industries people are working in. 

Leveraging “Coconut Wireless” to Get the Word Out About COVID

“Our governor has been doing lives every single day but it wasn’t until our community leaders started doing lives on Facebook that people started to pay attention,” Oreta Tupola said.

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Tupola says, in the Pacific Islander community, news spreads through word of mouth. 

We call it coconut wireless,” she says. 

“Communication and the discussion and the spread of that news really comes from the trusted members of your community and your family and it spreads out in that way,” she added. 

What Community Leaders Are Doing 

Community health workers and leaders are putting out public service announcements in multiple languages, assembling and distributing care kits, and staying on-site at mobile testing units. 

They are trying to get the word out to Pacific Islanders everywhere: COVID-19 is spreading and the consequences are serious. 

Even though there’s an urgency with this pandemic, I think we’re right on time with where we are as a community because it’s been a hard transition,” Tupola said, “first in building trust and letting them know we are here to help. 

Where Pacific Islanders Can Find COVID Resources

Salt Lake County is trying to address the challenge of keeping family members safe when they live in inter-generational homes. 

With a referral from a community health worker, people who test positive can get a hotel voucher and two weeks of meals. 

Here is a list of additional resources: 

Click here to read the latest about coronavirus.



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