SPOTLIGHT | April 29, 2021

A Leap of Faith

What happens when a popular pastor praises COVID-19 vaccines? Answer: A faith-based movement to encourage vaccinations within the Pacific Islander community ripples across Southern California.

The effort started organically. In March, 410 people, including more than 50 Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, got COVID-19 vaccines at a community health fair in Southeast San Diego.  The fair, led by retired physician Suzanne Afflalo, M.D., intended to reach the most under-resourced area of the county. When the pastor of the First Samoan Christian Congregational Church of San Diego heard that several members from his congregation showed up – despite a heavy thunderstorm – he got vaccinated at the next event. He then hosted a vaccination event at his church on Good Friday, which drew 600 people with just two days of notice. Now, more vaccination events at churches in the community are being planned, with help from partners like the University of California San Diego.

“They are familiar grounds, familiar faces,” said Kawen Young, a lead member of the Southern California Pacific Islander COVID-19 Response Team (SoCal PICRT), about the churches and their congregants. And the NIH Community Engagement Alliance (CEAL) agrees. Together, community leaders and researchers are using faith-based outreach as one of several ways to help minority and ethnic communities access COVID-19 testing, vaccines, and treatment.

CEAL researchers listened to Asian American and Pacific Islander communities across California to understand how to best support communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19. A few themes emerged: First, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders value hearing from well-known trusted messengers from their communities, from the same culture, or who speak the same languages, including physicians, faith leaders, or local news anchors. Second, protecting fellow community members motivates residents to get vaccinated. Third, families want to make decisions and get vaccinated together.

Vaccine access, as opposed to building vaccine confidence, has been a more recent barrier for Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in California. However, according to the CEAL team, the faith-based events changed the minds of older residents who had previously passed on getting vaccinated. They trusted their church, their pastor, and their faith leaders.

"Our numbers may be small, but a life lost in this community is just as valuable."

Tana Lepule

Chair, Pacific Islander Coalition of San Diego

When Tana Lepule, chair of the Pacific Islander Coalition of San Diego, Keni Lasitani, a fourth-year medical student at UCSD, and others from SoCal PICRT found out that 400 vaccine slots were available for their community, they picked up phones, sent emails, and knocked on doors to encourage community members to stop by the church. “Our numbers may be small,” Lepule shared, noting the importance of keeping the community together. “But a life lost in this community is just as valuable.”

Church-based outreach, combined with vaccine vans, pop-up clinics, and interactive materials, has supported a high rate of vaccine uptake among Pacific Islanders in Southern California. Based on the popularity of this approach, SoCal PICRT members reached out to the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services to see if they could bring mobile vaccine clinics to additional churches in California.

“The hope is that some of the work that we’re doing with the California CEAL team can be shared with other states,” said Mona AuYoung, Ph.D., M.S., M.P.H., a CEAL researcher and Associate Director of Community Engagement for the Clinical and Translational Science Award at Scripps Health and Scripps Research Translational Institute. “That way nobody is left behind.”

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