MAR­SHALLESE IN North­west Arkansas hit hard.

They ac­count for half of dis­ease’s NW Arkansas deaths

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - Front Page - DOUG THOMP­SON AND ALEX GOLDEN

SPRING­DALE — The Mar­shallese make up no more than 3% of North­west Arkansas’ pop­u­la­tion, but they have suf­fered half of the covid-19 deaths so far in that re­gion, fig­ures show.

As of Fri­day, 14 of the 28 virus deaths there were Mar­shallese, ac­cord­ing to Wash­ing­ton County Coro­ner Roger Mor­ris and Ben­ton County Coro­ner Daniel Ox­ford.

“The com­mu­nity is dev­as­tated,” said El­don Alik, con­sul gen­eral for the Spring­dale con­sulate of the Repub­lic of the Mar­shall Is­lands.

As of Fri­day, state Depart­ment of Health fig­ures show that 6% of all con­firmed covid-19 cases in Arkansas are Pa­cific Is­lan­ders, a cat­e­gory that in­cludes Mar­shallese. Pa­cific Is­lan­ders ac­count for 0.4% of Arkansas’ pop­u­la­tion, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est cen­sus es­ti­mate.

Com­mu­nity Clinic, which has four covid-19 test­ing sites in North­west Arkansas, had tested 767 Mar­shallese pa­tients as of Thurs­day, and 31% of them tested pos­i­tive, ac­cord­ing to Judd Sem­ing­son, the clinic’s chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer.

Lack of test­ing as the pan­demic took hold in March and April was a big fac­tor in al­low­ing the dis­ease to spread among Mar­shallese Arkansans, said Dr. Shel­don Rik­lon. Rik­lon is a re­searcher at the North­west cam­pus of the Uni

ver­sity of Arkansas for Med­i­cal Sciences and works as a fam­ily prac­tice doc­tor at Com­mu­nity Clinic.

But Melisa Lae­lan, di­rec­tor of the Arkansas Coali­tion of Mar­shallese, was quoted in a

March 17 North­west Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette ar­ti­cle as say­ing the state’s coro­n­avirus warn­ings weren’t reach­ing Mar­shallese be­cause none of the cau­tions were is­sued in the Mar­shallese lan­guage.

Rik­lon warned in an April 17 ar­ti­cle in the North­west Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette that the lack of test­ing for covid-19 among the Mar­shallese in­creased the like­li­hood that it would spread quickly if it reached that com­mu­nity.

“This is one time I wish I was wrong,” Rik­lon said Tues­day.

Dr. Jen­nifer Dil­laha, the state Depart­ment of Health’s epi­demi­ol­o­gist, said in a state­ment Fri­day that the Mar­shallese com­mu­nity re­ceived pri­or­ity for test­ing, but the short­age of tests in the pan­demic’s early stages was a se­ri­ous prob­lem.

“The Mar­shallese have all along been on our top list to be watched,” her state­ment says. “In­suf­fi­cient test­ing ca­pac­ity was a prob­lem for the whole state in mid-April.”

The depart­ment pri­or­i­tized covid-19 test­ing for the Mar­shallese through its Bates Out­reach Clinic in Spring­dale, she said. As soon as the depart­ment had ac­cess, it placed an “Ab­bott ID Now” ma­chine ca­pa­ble of rapid test re­sults for coro­n­avirus at the Com­mu­nity Clinic, the state­ment said.

The Mar­shallese re­ceived fol­low-up test­ing of house­hold mem­bers and other peo­ple in close con­tact with coro­n­avirus cases as soon as pos­si­ble, the state­ment con­tin­ued.

On April 19, Dr. Nate Smith, the state’s sec­re­tary of health, as­sured the pub­lic dur­ing a pub­lic brief­ing on the pan­demic that his depart­ment was keep­ing a close watch on the Mar­shallese. He noted that the Mar­shallese ap­peared to be un­der­rep­re­sented in racial break­downs of covid-19 cases in the state at that time.

At an April 23 brief­ing with the gov­er­nor, Smith said: “We are par­tic­u­larly con­cerned about in­fec­tions, hospitaliz­ations and deaths in some of our harder to reach com­mu­ni­ties where there may be bar­ri­ers of lan­guage or cul­ture, so we are look­ing at that very care­fully.

“We have al­ready been work­ing with the Latino com­mu­nity [and] the Mar­shallese com­mu­nity pre­par­ing mes­sages cul­tur­ally adapted and in the proper lan­guage. We will con­tinue to do that but we will also make sure that we are do­ing ad­e­quate test­ing, as well,” Smith said.


North­west Arkansas has the largest pop­u­la­tion of Mar­shallese in the United States out­side of Hawaii, cen­sus fig­ures show. The Mar­shall Is­lands are a for­mer U.S. ter­ri­tory about 2,000 miles west of Hawaii.

The Mar­shallese are al­lowed to travel freely to the United States un­der a treaty be­tween the two coun­tries. North­west Arkansas be­came a des­ti­na­tion for many of them be­cause of em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties and a lower cost of liv­ing. Also, as the Mar­shallese com­mu­nity be­came es­tab­lished there, it at­tracted more of the is­lan­ders.

The Mar­shallese are prone to un­der­ly­ing health con­di­tions — in­clud­ing high blood pres­sure and di­a­betes — that make an out­break of covid-19 riskier for them, Rik­lon said.

“Lack of ac­cess to health care is a big prob­lem among the Mar­shallese,” Rik­lon said. “The preg­nant and chil­dren have ac­cess to Med­i­caid, but the adults are fac­ing un­em­ploy­ment, jobs that never car­ried in­sur­ance ben­e­fits any­way, and many of them part time, and no state or fed­eral Med­i­caid. They are al­ready wor­ried about their bills.”

They are gen­er­ally re­luc­tant to in­cur a doc­tor bill un­til they have no choice, and by that time they are se­verely ill, he said.

Pearl McEl­fish, vice chan­cel­lor at the North­west cam­pus of UAMS, agreed that the big­gest chal­lenge in con­trol­ling the pan­demic among the Mar­shallese is eco­nomic.

“Mar­shallese are not in the types of jobs you can work from home,” she said. “When you work for a clean­ing ser­vice or in the poul­try in­dus­try, you can’t self-iso­late while work­ing from your lap­top.”

Jobs gen­er­ally held by the Mar­shallese in­clude food pro­cess­ing, par­tic­u­larly poul­try, where peo­ple work in close quar­ters. Cur­rently, there are hun­dreds of covid-19 in­fec­tions among poul­try plant work­ers, Health Depart­ment fig­ures show. The plants are deemed es­sen­tial in­dus­tries by fed­eral and state govern­ments, and have been al­lowed to stay open dur­ing the pan­demic.

“Tyson and others are tak­ing this very se­ri­ously, and they are do­ing their best,” McEl­fish said. “I want to make that clear. But you can’t vir­tu­ally cut up a chicken.”

The Arkansas Coali­tion of Mar­shallese es­ti­mates about 82% of Pa­cific Is­lan­ders in Arkansas have some­one deemed an es­sen­tial worker in the house­hold. About 51% have house­hold mem­bers with di­a­betes, obe­sity or high blood pres­sure, and 15% have house­hold mem­bers who are 65 and older.

Also, Mar­shallese fam­i­lies have sev­eral gen­er­a­tions liv­ing in the same home be­cause they can’t af­ford not to, McEl­fish said. And they can­not af­ford enough room for so­cial dis­tanc­ing at home. Liv­ing from pay­check to pay­check is com­mon, she said, with many fam­i­lies afraid of miss­ing work and los­ing wages.

“I know one house­hold that went from four wage-earn­ers to none” be­cause of coro­n­avirus ex­po­sure, she said.

Com­pound­ing that is that the Mar­shallese com­mu­nity is close-knit, Alik said.

“When some­body dies, you know who it is. And if you don’t know them, you know who their grand­par­ents are or who their brother or sis­ter is,” he said.


Mur­jel Tark­won died May 25 at age 63 of covid-19.

Alik said he moved to North­west Arkansas in 2017, and Tark­won was one of the first peo­ple he met. Tark­won helped him find a place to live and was hum­ble de­spite be­ing a descendant of Mar­shall Is­land chiefs, he said.

Tark­won’s son, Alis­ter Tark­won, 31, de­scribed his fa­ther as kind and hum­ble. He mostly re­mem­bers his fa­ther tak­ing part in com­mu­nity events and get­ting to­gether with the rel­a­tives for hol­i­days and birthdays.

His fa­ther, who had di­a­betes, was in the hospi­tal bat­tling covid-19, at times on a ven­ti­la­tor, for about three weeks be­fore it took his life.

Alis­ter Tark­won said his mother was the first to show symp­toms of covid-19. She tested pos­i­tive. Then he, his wife, fa­ther and two sis­ters, who all live to­gether, all tested pos­i­tive. His wife and two sis­ters did not show symp­toms, he said.

Sto­ries of stricken friends and fam­ily mem­bers among the Mar­shallese are in­creas­ing.

On Wed­nes­day, Anita Iban chron­i­cled her friends, rel­a­tives and church ac­quain­tances who are sick or have died.

Iban is a par­ent li­ai­son for the Spring­dale School Dis­trict, and her hus­band is the pas­tor of Anij Em­man Church, an As­sem­blies of God con­gre­ga­tion in Spring­dale.

“It’s eat­ing up our com­mu­nity fast,” said Carl­ness Jerry with the Mar­shallese Ed­u­ca­tion Ini­tia­tive.

Jerry said the sick­ness has spread by com­mu­nity mem­bers who don’t know they have it and by some who know they have it but hide it for fear of los­ing wages.

Iban’s church or­ga­nized three events to gather do­na­tions, food and per­sonal pro­tec­tive equip­ment for Mar­shallese fam­i­lies. Jerry said her or­ga­ni­za­tion has shared grant money with groups help­ing the com­mu­nity.

“There’s not enough for all of them,” Iban said.

Jerry said her or­ga­ni­za­tion tries to stay up­dated on the lat­est news about the virus and preven­tion, and shares that in­for­ma­tion through its web­site, but not ev­ery­body has a com­puter.

The Mar­shallese are tak­ing pre­cau­tions by stay­ing at home, wear­ing masks and so­cial dis­tanc­ing. Church and fam­ily gath­er­ings, so im­por­tant to the com­mu­nity, have been canceled, Iban said. Still the virus spreads.

“What we’re work­ing to­ward, what we need, is to help peo­ple get tested and to get them the re­sources they need to self-iso­late,” McEl­fish said.

“There’s a say­ing that goes ‘Don’t let the per­fect be the en­emy of the good,’” McEl­fish said. “We have to do this and do it now, not per­fect a sys­tem. We don’t have months, weeks or even days.”

Much of the dis­ease’s ini­tial spread among the Mar­shallese is un­known, Rik­lon said. “I’m not sure we’ll be able to pin­point where it started.”

“We’re try­ing to find the hot spots, but that’s dif­fi­cult to do be­cause we have mul­ti­ple hot spots. All we can do is keep prac­tic­ing so­cial dis­tanc­ing, wash our hands and stay home. Think twice about hav­ing to go out.”

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