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Department of Health steps up outreach to Pacific Islanders

by Thunda

Different approaches to public health outreach and education are used to reach Hawai‘i’s diverse ethnic populations and large number of immigrants for whom English is a second language. The Hawai‘i Department of Health’s Disease Outbreak Control Division is ready to engage and collaborate with the communities. Recognizing the need, Disease Investigations Branch Chief Emily Roberson recently commissioned a contact tracing team dedicated to outreach to Pacific Islanders.

Contact Tracer Lead Investigator Chantelle “Tellie” “Matagi and her team of 10 contact tracers and monitoring specialists conduct in-person educational outreach events for Pacific Islander communities.

Chantelle “Tellie” Matagi started as a Contact Tracer Lead Investigator in October and has hit the ground running. In just four weeks, she and her team of 10 contact tracer and monitoring specialists have been filling an important void for education. Pacific Islanders represent 4% of Hawaii’s total population but their infection rate is 28%, primarily because of socioeconomic reasons and not because they are irresponsible “super-spreaders.”

The team has been instrumental in establishing a collaborative, trusting partnership between the Department of Health and nonprofit Pacific community organizations, state and county agencies, and pastors and other community leaders to safeguard the health and wellbeing of Pacific Islander communities.

Positive Community Feedback

Streaming Saturday, November 21, 4:30-8 pm. Pasefika Su’i Fefiloi – Weaving Together, a virtual concert featuring local artists and important information about COVID-19’s impact on Pacific Island peoples, in native languages.

Tellie’s team conducts in-person educational outreach events in culturally appropriate ways for Chuukese, Kosraeans, Marshallese, Native Hawaiians, Pohnpeians, Samoans, and Tongans in their language. Most importantly, the team also serves as advocates for processes that are rooted in the diverse Pacific cultures and languages to address the effects of COVID-19 on Pacific communities, including those on the island of Lānaʻi, where there was a recent outbreak.

“I love seeing the work my team does to make a positive impact on our Pacific communities. We’re offering educational outreach in Pacific languages, making much needed wrap-around services accessible by offering it to them in their own languages and hopefully taking the fear out of this process,” Tellie said. “Equitable access cannot just be a buzzword, it has to be followed by action.”

To meet the need for better, culturally competent messaging and to address the concerns of Pacific communities, Tellie also helped to organize a Facebook Live concert in collaboration with the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Hawaii COVID-19 Response Recovery Resilience Team on Saturday, Nov. 21, from 4:30 pm – 8 pm.

“Pasefika Su‘i Fefiloi” Virtual Concert will feature Rimajol, Kelandy, John Akapo, Rebel Souljahz, Kapena, and multiple Nā Hōku Hanohano Award recipient Josh Tatofi. There will also be comedy by the Da Braddahs. Tellie and her team will have the opportunity to share about isolation, quarantine, accommodations for those who cannot isolate at home, vaccinations, and other public health messages in multiple languages during the concert. Go to @DaBraddahsHI to tune into the show.

The feedback from the community has been positive and has shown the Department of Health is on the right track.

“Every community has been very gracious, loving, and patient, which is what I would expect from Pacific communities. And I do not say this lightly,” Tellie said. “Pacific Island cultures are diverse but there are some values that are central to all – family, love, service, and communal support.  Pacific Islanders are never just about one person; they are always about the community.”

An Ideal Background

Tellie is the perfect fit for this important role. Although she does not speak Samoan fluently, she more than makes up for this with a deep understanding of the culture.

“I was raised by and with my Samoan grandparents,” she said. “They taught me about the importance of family, community responsibility, love, respect, service, and faith. With these core values at the heart of everything I do. My love for my Pacific community bridges any gaps or flaws I may have.”

“Samoans are often very blunt, so I am not easily offended which is necessary because if you cannot take criticism, it is very hard to do what I do.  And you have to be a smart fighter. Not all fights are worth fighting and some fights are better dealt with through negotiation. And last but not least you have to see the humor in everything.  We are in the middle of a pandemic that weighs heavily on many of our hearts and being able to laugh gives us hope and reminds us of better days.

Tellie received a bachelor of arts degree in Pacific Islands Studies from the University of Hawai‘i-Mānoa and is completing her final project for a master of arts degree from the UH-Mānoa’s Center for Pacific Islands Studies.

She combines her extensive knowledge of Pacific Islanders with contact tracing. She earned a contact tracing certificate from UH-West O‘ahu, and has been serving as a Native Hawaiian & Pacific Islanders Hawai’i COVID-19 Response Recover Resilience Team member and Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) volunteer.

Unique Challenges

There is a natural fear and skepticism when a contact tracer from the health department calls to ask personal questions of those who may have been exposed to COVID-19. Having someone speak in your native language helps to reduce the cultural and language barriers, and bring down any walls to allow the contact tracing efforts to be more effective in protecting public health.

There are unique challenges inherent to outreach to Pacific Islanders.

“There is a distrust among Pacific Islanders concerning government agencies. This is due to the United States colonial history which I realize is not something many Americans want to discuss, but it has had long-term effects on many minority communities, including Pacific Islanders,” Tellie explained. “So, understanding this challenge is paramount in connecting with Pacific Islanders. I also think because English is their second language for most there is a tendency for English speakers to sound condescending in their exchanges. I do not believe this is intentional; it is based really in comprehension and a lack of cultural knowledge.”

Common Misconceptions

Even in our Aloha State, Pacific Islanders must endure many misconceptions about them and unfair treatment.

“I think a common misconception is that besides tourists, Pacific Islanders are Hawai‘i’s next biggest offender when it comes to COVID-19. This often supports already present negative stereotypes which means Pacific Islanders are unfairly targeted by law enforcement and often means they do not seek out assistance because they are ashamed and do not want to contribute to this negative stereotype,” Tellie said.

“The truth is, Pacific Islanders are not the problem. They are more at risk due to socio-economic reasons, not genetics. Pacific Islanders are essential workers, they have more exposure with the public at large, and due to the high cost of living in Hawai’i and cultural practices they live in multi-generational spaces.  On top of this, due to language barriers and a lack of cultural competency, they do not receive equitable access to health care services,” Tellie said. “And we cannot forget that many of our Pacific Island community members are here because the U.S. used their islands as nuclear test sites leaving them unsafe and uninhabitable in some cases.”

“I believe that if the community at large understood this, they would be less judgmental in their thoughts and their actions would be kinder. It is a privilege when a person can work from home safely during a pandemic. It is a privilege when a person can isolate or quarantine at home safely during a pandemic. And not everyone has that privilege,” she said.

In the meantime, Tellie and her team will continue to keep moving forward and scheduling more presentations customized for different ethnic groups. If you would like more information about a presentation for your community, please contact (808) 691-0849 or (808) 693-6427 or

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