HONOLULU (AP) – Kuulei Perreira-Keawekane was barely breathing when she walked to an emergency room in Hawaii. Nausea made it difficult for her to get up and her body throbbed in pain.
Like many local Hawaiians, she was not vaccinated against COVID-19.
Perreira-Keawekane’s situation underscores the COVID-19 crisis that is gripping Hawaii as hospitals overflow with record numbers of patients, vaccinations have stagnated and Hawaiians have a disproportionate share of the suffering.
Hawaii was once considered a beacon of safety during the pandemic due to strict travel and quarantine restrictions and the general acceptance of vaccines that made it one of the most heavily vaccinated states in the country. But the highly contagious Delta variant took advantage of weaknesses when residents became less vigilant and attended family gatherings after months of restrictions and vaccination hesitations in some Hawaiian communities.
On Friday, the state reported a record high of 1,035 newly confirmed cases. A higher number was reported earlier this month, but it included cases of several days due to delays in lab reporting.
Now the governor is telling tourists to stay out of the way and residents to restrict travel, and leaders are again setting caps on the size of social gatherings. And in an effort to combat vaccine reluctance, a group of corporations and nonprofits launched a public service campaign on Thursday targeted at indigenous Hawaiians, many of whom have a deep distrust of the government who are on dates back to the US-backed overthrow of the monarchy in 1893.
The campaign reminds Hawaiians that disease almost wiped them out in the 19th century and that the then rulers of the kingdom urged people to get vaccinated against smallpox.
About 20 Hawaiian leaders stood in rows six feet apart on Thursday in front of a statue of Queen Liliʻuokalani, the kingdom’s last monarch, begging people to wear masks and get vaccinated for the survival of the indigenous people Secure Hawaii’s population.
“Not only was I scared of the needles and just pushed them open, pushed them open, I also didn’t have enough information about the vaccine and that suspicion was just very real,” Perreira-Keawekane said.
Now she wants to get vaccinated. Even so, she does not consider herself a supporter or opponent of the vaccine.
“Choosing one or the other is at the root of trauma for locals,” she said. “You can scream data at the top of your throat, but if it has nothing to do with people we know, it’s not real.”
In total, 62.1% of Hawaii is fully vaccinated. But Hawaiians have one of the lowest rates; Estimates show that it is around 40%.
Native Hawaiians make up about 21% of the state’s population, and from the start of the pandemic to July 10, 2021, they also made up 21% of the cases. But from July 11, 2021 to August 16, 2021, that value rose to 28%, according to government data.
Honolulu Emergency Department director Jim Ireland said there were four emergency calls in a row from COVID-19 patients on a recent morning for Nanakuli, a community where many local Hawaiians live. He noted that vaccination rates were lower on the west side of Oahu.
The thought behind the campaign, which focuses on increasing Hawaiian vaccination rates, is that the news to the public has so far been inadequate, said Nāʻālehu Anthony, director of COVID Pau, a collaboration of companies and nonprofits operating during the pandemic Public health news delivered.
“We tell people to get the vaccine until we’re blue in the face,” said Anthony. “But that’s not necessarily the whole story of why getting a vaccine is important. And part of that is the relationship with whoever asks you. “
At a press conference on Monday, Governor David Ige, who is not Hawaiian, admitted that he is not the ideal messenger: “We know that my statements are sometimes not the most motivating for many others.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, the indigenous Hawaiians had one of the lowest infection rates and took security measures such as trading in honi, a traditional forehead-to-forehead greeting, against elbow bumps or shakas from a distance.
That changed around May during the time of year when people celebrated graduation ceremonies and weddings.
The irony has not escaped some of the attention of some that a popular reason for Hawaiian family celebrations today came at a time when Hawaiians were celebrating a baby’s first birthday, which in the face of measles was a real feat until a vaccine was available.
“I find it sad and a little ironic that luau have in many cases become places where people get sick,” said Senator Jarrett Keohokalole.
Andria Tupola, a Hawaiian city councilor who represents West Oahu, said that among other things, leaders lose touch with their voters if they don’t respect people who want to make their own decisions.
She recently announced that she had not been vaccinated because she tested positive on a visit to Utah but felt healthy enough to go running every day. She was also instrumental in organizing vaccination clinics.
The backlash she faced because of her vaccination status does nothing to convince people in her community to get vaccinated, she said.
“If you have to crucify me and make an example of me in front of my community … if you think people somehow want to do it, it’s the opposite because people trust others and respect others in our community,” she said.
Keaweʻaimoku Kaholokula, chair of the Department of Native Hawaiian Health at the University of Hawaii Medical School, said he didn’t expect some Hawaiians to avoid the vaccine. “It’s very American, which is ironic – very individualistic – to act like that,” he said.
“I think our people need to remember that part of our culture is to protect one another in our own interest,” he said.
Keoni Payton, a clothing designer on the Big Island, is not vaccinated but supports those who choose to vaccinate. “I am for the choice of what you put into your body and your body autonomy,” he said.
The messages of how the rulers of the kingdom prescribed the smallpox vaccine in the 1850s do not match him.
“As Hawaiians, we were not treated fairly by the US government,” he said. “They stole our land and now they’re stealing our bodies.”
AP reporters Audrey McAvoy and Caleb Jones contributed to this report.
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