King County’s Marshallese community has every reason to be skeptical of health advice from the federal government. After all, the United States once used their island homeland, the Marshall Islands, as a nuclear testing ground.
Given that history, it takes extra effort to explain to the community that the COVID-19 vaccine has been tested extensively and is safe and effective, said Jiji Jally, 54, president of the King County Marshallese Women’s Association.
“We were used as guinea pigs,” said Jally. “Some people are worried about being used as guinea pigs again.”
As a community health worker, Jally was eligible to get vaccinated early. She has worked hard to dispel any misconceptions about the COVID-19 vaccine and encourage her fellow Marshallese and other Pacific Islanders to get it.
History breeds mistrust
Pacific Islanders are among several communities whose experience with government and the healthcare system might make them reluctant to get vaccinated. African-Americans, for example, were once recruited for an infamous government-run syphilis study while being denied treatment for the disease.
“Many Marshallese are hesitant to get vaccinated,” Jally said. “Because of our history, there’s no trust.”
Many Marshallese work in essential industries, whose employees cannot work from home and face a higher risk of exposure to the virus. Many don’t have access to health insurance.
“There have been a lot of deaths in our community,” Jally said. “It’s important to let people know that the vaccine is safe.”
Jally recently helped sign people up for a vaccination clinic for Pacific Islanders in Federal Way. One of them was Bokai Mokin, who emigrated from the Marshall Islands two years ago and now lives with her grandchildren in Auburn.
It didn’t hurt a bit
“I’m afraid of needles, but it happened so quickly, I didn’t even feel it,” Mokin said, minutes after getting jabbed.
She knows first-hand that anyone can catch the virus. Her son recently had to take two weeks off from his job at a food processing plant after he tested positive. When Jally told her about the Federal Way clinic, Mokin signed up right away.
Many of the underlying health conditions that can make people more vulnerable to COVID-19 are common in the Pacific Islander population, said Esther DeBrum, a Marshallese community member who works for the Pacific Islander Health Board of Washington.
“A lot of elders in my community have hypertension, diabetes or cardiovascular problems,” she said. “I was worried because I have some health issues myself, and I couldn’t ask my family or community to take the vaccine without taking it first myself.”
DeBrum recently got vaccinated at a King County clinic for health care workers held at the HealthPoint Community Health Center in Renton.
“It wasn’t that bad,” she said. “It felt like a mosquito bite.”
She received her vaccine from Heather Stephen-Selby, director of clinical services for HealthPoint-Renton.
“We’ve given 4,900 doses so far, and nobody has had a severe reaction,” Stephen-Selby said, pointing out that the vaccines have been thoroughly tested.
Vaccines are a safe and crucial tool for stopping the spread of COVID-19, along with masks, social distancing and handwashing.
Following such precautions is especially important for the Marshallese community, which draws strength from its cohesiveness, Jally said.
“We’re very social,” she said. “When a baby turns one, it’s a big event, a big celebration. Friends and relatives come from all over the state, the country and even the Marshall Islands. It’s the same for baptisms and Marshallese Liberation Day in May.”
The sooner everyone gets vaccinated, Jally said, the sooner community members will be able to gather to celebrate the events that bring them joy.
Contributor Ben Stocking is a communications specialist at Public Health—Seattle & King County. This article was originally published on Public Health Insider on February 18, 2021.
Photo at top: Heather Stephen-Selby vaccinates Esther Debrum, a member of the Pacific Islander Health Board of Washington