‘Zip code matters’: Experts say pandemic highlighted troubling health inequalities statewide

Published: Oct. 12, 2021 at 5:37 PM HST|Updated: Oct. 13, 2021 at 3:54 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Hawaii’s healthcare and business leaders say the pandemic exposed troubling inequalities among ethnic and economic groups across the state.

The crisis also underscored how health is tied to resources available in communities.

“Zip code matters and as it relates to the way the pandemic has affected our community over the last 18 months, zip code matters that much more,” said Hawaii Pacific Health CEO Ray Vara.

Vara, speaking at a recent state House COVID hearing, revealed the stark gaps in how long people live ― even in communities next door to each other.

“The life expectancy difference between Hawaii Kai and the west side of Oahu is in excess of 10 years less,” Vara said, citing a Department of Health study. “The difference between Hawaii Kai and Waimanalo is just about 12 years less in Waimanalo than it is just around the corner in Hawaii Kai.”

Waimanalo and the west side of Oahu both have low vaccination rates. And many residents in those communiteis are Native Hawaiian, who account for 40% of the state’s recent COVID deaths.

Queen’s Health Systems CEO Jill Hoggard Green says vaccine reluctance came, in part, from distrust of the health care system and government.

“We need to be humble and listen about why isn’t there trust,” she said. “What are the things that we can do to better create trust, be worthy of trust, and build relationships that can strengthen health.”

Vara adds that’s not all in need of repair.

“The health of a population is only about 20% defined within the care that we provide within the walls of our facilities,” Vara said.

“The rest lies further upstream if you will. Understanding the impacts of early childhood development, understanding the impacts K-12 education, understanding the impact of food insecurities.”

University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization Executive Director Carl Bonham says meeting those needs requires comprehensive and direct action in the communities that need assistance.

“Expanding funded research that looks at specific interventions that help with the specific kinds of health challenges that face underserved populations and native populations in the state,” Bonham said.

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