Pacific Islander community tops COVID-19 infection rate for Utah’s minority groups

Coronavirus Updates

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – More than a month after he was released from the hospital, Salt Lake County resident Benjamin Powell is still feeling the effects of COVID-19. He knows he’s one of the lucky ones, who made it through two weeks of hospitalization and survived to tell his story.

“The doctors advised me that before I could get intubated, I had to call my family members just to let them know what was happening to me and that if things got bad, they needed to plan my funeral,” said Powell.

Powell, who is Tongan and Fijian, said he moved to Utah from Kentucky in May to be closer to his family and to further his career. Just a few weeks after, he began to experience symptoms and tested positive for both COVID-19 and viral pneumonia in June.

“I couldn’t taste food at all. The taste was like a metallic, sulfury taste. Think of putting pennies in your mouth. I mean, it was an awful taste, no matter what I ate,” he said. “It’s hard to say where I got COVID-19 because I don’t remember being around people who were sick. My doctors and nurses said I could’ve gotten it from a counter at the grocery store or at the gas station.”

Powell documented his experience in the hospital with COVID-19 (June to July 2020)

After being intubated and breathing on oxygen for 13 days, Powell said the muscles in his esophagus had collapsed. He had to relearn how to talk, eat, chew, and swallow again. To this day, he is still experiencing effects even though he’s recovered from the virus.

Juliet Tuineau’s husband, Ray didn’t make it that far. She recalled contracting the virus in mid-July and her husband began exhibiting symptoms about a week later. Although he was just 35 years old, she said she believes COVID-19 had a more severe impact on him because he was a type 2 diabetic.

Ray and Juliet Tuineau with their three children

During the two weeks he spent in the hospital, Tuineau said she rarely got to speak to him because of his condition and couldn’t visit in-person although she had recovered from the virus. He passed away on August 8th.

“Nothing prepares you for when you get that phone call that he’s gone,” said Tuineau. “You never think that stuff like this is going to happen to you. I want everyone to know this is real and the symptoms are no joke. It was hard. Those were the three worst weeks of Ray’s life.”

Tuineau’s husband is the 19th person from Utah’s Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community to pass away from COVID-19. Nearly 2,000 people have tested positive for the virus, which is the highest infection rate of all minority groups in the state. Although they make up approximately two percent of our total population, they account for four percent of our total cases.

Powell said it was when he was in the hospital and talking to one of his nurses, that he realized his community was more vulnerable to the virus.

“I asked her if the ICU rooms were full and she said, ‘Oh yes. All the rooms are full and one thing it’s full of are minorities.’ She was Tongan and said, ‘There are three of us in here,'” he said.

Jake Fitisemanu, Chair of the Utah Pacific Islander Health Coalition (UPIHC) said there are a number of contributing factors to the high numbers including more community members working in essential jobs and multiple generations living in the same household.

“It’s hard because so much of our culture is centered around social gatherings, sharing food, and human interaction. It’s not unique to just our culture, but it’s at the core. Many people feel pressured or that they may be viewed as withdrawing from their family if they can’t show up to an event,” he said.

He said Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are a population with a higher prevalence of chronic diseases and underlying health conditions, which can put them at a higher risk of contracting the virus, being hospitalized, and passing away.

“There’s also a stigma and misunderstandings about the causes of the disease that make people a little hesitant sometimes to speak up or admit they have it,” said Fitisemanu.

He said UPIHC and Salt Lake County are working on disseminating information in their native languages through faith-based and community organizations. They are also working on bringing resources directly to these populations.

“If you look at New Zealand, their Pacific Islanders have the lowest rates of infection and highest rate of testing, which is almost the opposite of what we’re seeing in the U.S. They were also doing mobile testing and going door-to-door where people with large families may be less likely to come out to a public testing center,” said Fitisemanu.

Tuineau said she’s now sharing her husband’s story to hopefully, save lives.

“I’ve already lost my husband. I don’t want to bury anyone else. Let’s all stay safe, be healthy,” she said.

Fitisemanu urges all community members, not just the Utah’s Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander population to abide by the county’s safety guidelines of washing your hands frequently, wearing your masks, maintaining social distancing, and staying home if you feel sick.

“Even if you’ve tested and you’re not positive, there are other people who are vulnerable or have underlying health conditions. So we need to be mindful of those people and follow these precautions as a gesture of concern and respect for those other than ourselves,” he said.

For more information about COVID-19 in the Pacific Islander community, visit UPIHC’s website here.

Rosie_Nguyen
Rosie Nguyen is an award-winning journalist who joined the ABC4 News team as a reporter in January 2018. Her areas of focus include stories about communities of color, minority issues, and social justice.

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