Photo: Dr. Nalani Blaisdell-Brennan, Dr. Marcus Iwane, Brian Keaulana, Dr. Gerard Akaka and Kuʻulei Birnie
(L-R) Dr. Nalani Blaisdell-Brennan, Dr. Marcus Iwane, Brian Keaulana, Dr. Gerard Akaka and Ku‘ulei Birnie teamed together to create two public service announcements targeting Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities to help educate them about COVID-19 and the importance of ongoing vigilance to protect against this potentially deadly disease.- Photo: Renea Veneri Stewart

In October 2020, Waiʻanae, home to more Native Hawaiians than any other zip code in Hawaiʻi, experienced a dramatic peak in COVID-19 positivity: 18.5 percent. The Hawaiʻi State Department of Health declared the area a hotspot. By November, Waiʻanae’s positivity rate was 12 percent – better, but far from ideal.

Dr. Nalani Blaisdell-Brennan, who has been with the Waiʻanae Coast Comprehensive Health Center (WCCHC) for 14 years, sent out a kāhea to Dr. Gerard Akaka, vice president of Native Hawaiian Affairs and Clinical Support for The Queen’s Health Systems and former medical director of WCCHC, and Dr. Marcus Iwane, an internal medicine physician at Kaiser Permanente’s Nanaikeola Clinic in Nānākuli. They began meeting weekly with Kuʻulei Birnie, communications coordinator for Papa Ola Lōkahi, a nonprofit that focuses on Native Hawaiian health and wellbeing, to strategize ways to improve the statistics.

The CDC had been widely broadcasting the importance of wearing masks, washing hands and social distancing to stop the spread of COVID-19. The Hawaiian kauka realized to have an impact with a Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander (NHPI) audience, however, the message needed to be shared in a culturally meaningful way. They landed upon the idea of creating a Public Service Announcement (PSA) featuring a beloved member of the community.

Photo: Buffalo and Momi Keaulana with their son, Brian
Buffalo and Momi Keaulana with their son, Brian.- Photo: Renea Veneri Stewart

According to Blaisdell-Brennan, few people are more trusted and respected in Waiʻanae than famed waterman Buffalo Keaulana and his loving wife of 60 years, Momi. Through his job as a lifeguard at Mākaha Beach, Buffalo has been credited with saving thousands of lives.

“We wanted a warm approach where family members could speak from the heart about the importance of legacy, kuleana and ʻohana as they relate to the pandemic,” Blaisdell-Brennan said. “It took many phone calls and personal visits to convince Uncle Buff and Aunty Momi to participate; they do not seek the limelight. However, the message of saving lives resonated with the family’s ethos. Brian is their eldest child. As busy as he is with his work as a stunt coordinator and second-unit action director for movies and TV shows, he said, ʻThis is what we do; we help people.’”

The weather was perfect on the day of the shoot. First, the crew planned to film Brian’s segment at Mākaha Beach; after that, they would meet Uncle Buffalo and Aunty Momi at their home.

Photo: Dr. Nalani Blaisdell-Brennan and Brian Keaulana
Dr. Nalani Blaisdell-Brennan and Brian Keaulana.- Photo: Courtesy

“We were going to do just one 30-second PSA,” Blaisdell-Brennan said. “Then came the unexpected: Unscripted, Aunty Momi delivered her own personal PSA in one take! She ended it with a heartfelt plea: ʻPlease, everyone. The life you save may be your own. Mahalo, Ke Akua.’”

Brian’s PSA includes photos of his large, close-knit family. “Why should I care?” he asks in the spot. “Because I love my ʻohana. [Staying safe from the virus] takes all of us together.”

His father-in-law passed away in February after contracting COVID-19, so he fully understands the grief and anguish so many people are going through from losing a loved one to the disease. It’s easy to worry, to be afraid, but the antidote, he believes, is following the facts and science rather than listening to rumors and conspiracy theories.

“The ocean has been the lifeblood of my family for decades, but we know it can also be dangerous,” Brian said. “My dad taught us kids to understand danger and to face our fears. If you have knowledge, you’re not going to have fear.”

Like his father, Brian is a veteran surfer, lifeguard and all-around waterman; he has also developed water safety training programs for military special operations forces and prestigious surfing events around the world. He sees the pandemic as the biggest wave he’s ever had to conquer.

“I feel like it’s holding me underwater, but I know I have to relax, hold my breath and hope all the risk mitigation procedures I’ve learned will take me to a safe place,” he said. “Education is the best tool we have when we need to make decisions that could mean life or death.”

To that end, OHA is one of 40-plus agencies, organizations and state departments in the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Hawaiʻi COVID-19 Response, Recovery and Resilience Team (NHPI 3R), which was formed last May to address the impact of the pandemic on NHPI communities. As the “backbone” of that coalition, Papa Ola Lōkahi paid for the production of the two Keaulana PSAs and the airing of them during 569 prime morning and evening slots on KGMB, KHNL and KFVE from February through May.

“We’ve established partnerships to produce other PSAs, manage a website [] and create a repository of in-language resources for the purpose of providing accurate and timely information to the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities that we serve,” Birnie said. “These projects are part of the NHPI 3R Team’s mission to improve the collection and reporting of accurate COVID-19 data, support statewide initiatives that address NHPI concerns and maintain a strong voice in the decision-making processes that affect our communities.”

Along with mandated mask use and greater availability of vaccines, these efforts are yielding promising results. As this issue went to press in late March, Waiʻanae’s positivity rate was down to one percent, with no more than 10 known active COVID-19 cases.

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi has written 12 books and countless newspaper, magazine and website articles about Hawaiʻi’s history, culture, food and lifestyle.

NHPI vaccination stats: just 8.8%

Since mid-December, when Hawaiʻi started implementing its vaccination program, only 8.8% of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (NHPI) have received at least one dose despite the fact that they account for 41% of COVID-19 cases in the state. That was a major finding of a report released on March 16 by the Hawaiʻi State Department of Health (DOH) and its academic and community partners, including the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander COVID-19 Response, Recovery and Resilience Team, of which OHA is a member.

The seemingly low NHPI percentage should be taken in context, however. For example, following federal guidelines, health-care workers in Hawaiʻi were the first to get vaccinated, but NHPI representation in that industry is relatively low. Next, seniors aged 75 years and older were allowed to be vaccinated, but NHPI life expectancy falls below other racial groups in the state. That also limited NHPI numbers for this vaccine prioritization category.

Other reasons for the disparity include language barriers, lack of computer expertise and transportation issues (e.g., people can’t get to a vaccination site because it’s not on a bus line, they don’t drive, they don’t have a car, or they don’t know anyone who can take them).

The DOH is considering ways to address these challenges, and education is key. Native Hawaiian physicians, cultural practitioners and other community leaders will discuss the importance of getting vaccinated in upcoming issues of Ka Wai Ola.