As chair of the Philippine Nurses Association of San Diego (PNASD) and leader in the PNASD’s COVID-19 Vaccination Task Force, Vivian Sanderlin has seen firsthand the hardships and setbacks faced by her fellow nurses in this Asian American community.

“I see the nurses online via Zoom, on board meetings, general membership or education seminars. We are saddened and shocked,” she said. “There are about 1,700 healthcare workers, nurses that are gone due to COVID-19. There’s about 65 to 70 Filipino front-line workers that are being remembered because they passed away. We are always helping PNASD members whose family members who have gone.”

Sanderlin is one of a growing number of Filipino leaders speaking out about the needs of their community in the wake of the COVID pandemic, many of which are preexisting problems that have complicated access to community resources and representation for years.

JoAnn Fields, public relations director of the Asian/Pacific Islander Initiative, feels the Filipino community is being left behind.

“I hate that we have to prove we exist,” she said. Fields, along with the PNASD, notes that disaggregated data is one of the solutions to proving Filipinos deserve equal access to COVID-19 relief and assistance.

Merlie Ramira, San Diego Vaccination Advisory Board member and PNASD COVID-19 Vaccination Task Force member, recently spoke to the County of San Diego’s COVID-19 Vaccine Clinical Advisory Group about disaggregated data. She asked the board, “How will you be able to determine the resources you need for the Asian population if you don’t know which group needs more vaccinations?”

To combat disaggregated data, Fields is also advocating for increased community resources and representation. “We need an organization, not an individual. And if it’s me, this is a job,” she said.

Despite the 200,000 Filipinos living in San Diego, there is not a Filipino cultural center (other than the Balboa Park House of Philippines) or a Filipino resource center in the county.

A first step in the direction of creating a resource center happened Dec. 19 when Fields and the PNASD stepped into action. The Vaccination Task Force was formed by PNASD Board members Vivian Sanderlin, Merlie Ramira, Cece Echon, Perly Anguinaldo and president Crisabel Ramos. Sanderlin explained what the Filipino COVID-19 Vaccination Task Force has accomplished so far.

“Our task force presented to the PNASD members and students an educational series about COVID-19,” she said. “The webinars we had started in January 2021. Then, we started a vaccination program. So far, we have vaccinated 3,000 people across San Diego county.”

Ramos also noted, “The ultimate goal is to support San Diego county and the different organizations we are working with. We are the vaccinators. They need us to provide those vaccines. We are here to support.”

Recently, the PNASD was asked to join the county’s advisory committee for COVID-19. Aguinaldo said that this Filipino representation is bringing about change.

“For Merlie to be chosen to represent PNASD in the advisory group, it really is a big introduction of PNASD to the county,” she said. “It widened our network and resources. The value of our organization to the planning of this COVID-19 response showed that we matter, what we say matters.”

San Diego is not the only Filipino community that has faced problems in the past year. Despite welcomed changes in pursuit of equity and representation, hardships in the Filipino community remain according to a report from UCD Bulosan Center for Filipinx Studies. Poverty and a lack of healthcare support were common among Filipino Americans during this past year. According to the report, “70% of Filipinos in California reported experiencing at least one of the following problems including having difficulty paying their rents or mortgages, having to cut back on food expenses to save money, or not having enough money.”

As a result, the Bulosan Center for Filipinx Studies projected “Given the high numbers of Filipinos in the state of California and the greater Sacramento region, we can anticipate that Filipinos who contract COVID-19 will not be able to get proper medical attention due to their lack of health care coverage” — a direct tie to this impoverished community.

These financial hardships can also be seen in San Diego, particularly in elderly Filipinos. At the Bay Terraces Community Park off of Tooma Street (a predominantly Filipino neighborhood), 85 to 100 elderly citizens show up for free groceries every Friday, according to Fields. This is just one neighborhood in San Diego that reflects a narrative common among thousands of people.

To solve problems like the one in Bay Terraces, Fields recognizes that the PNASD as a professional organization can help, but support would be even more effective with presence of a general resource center for Filipinos. For example, the center would help non-English speakers and those without technology experience who need help setting up vaccination appointments. Fields found that the Filipino community had difficulty in navigating the vaccination information website.

“Is it user-friendly? Can you readily find what you’re looking for? I am supposed to be well-versed in COVID-19 resource websites and I can’t find information right away,” she explained.

Fields said the solution to these problems requires more than short-winded grants or programs. The Filipino Vaccination Task Force is one of these programs and the PNASD noted they the best way to support their work is through donations. However, Fields believes long-term solutions and support are what is needed.

“There are already organizations like the Chicano Federation, The Urban League — all of whom I work with in the community, but they are paid to do what we do,” she said. “We should have staff. We should be able to hire a Tagalog speaker. But who is going to build that? I am not waiting for Superman.”

Fields has been speaking out to city and county government boards calling for support because she said she, her friends and her family can’t do it alone.

As of Mar. 30, California’s official coronavirus website reported that only 11.8% of Asian Americans in San Diego County have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Filipinos make up a small percentage of vaccinations within that at 11.8%. In comparison, 45.9% of the White population has received at least one dose of the vaccine.

“I can show you the texts that I recieve from people who can’t get an appointment for their mom or dad, or lola or lolo,” Fields said. “If we don’t help one segment of the community we’re not going to curb COVID-19, especially if you are not reaching out to the Filipino community.”

To further the progress made by the PNASD Vaccination Task Force, Fields advocates that a Filipino resource center would provide long-term support, beyond the pandemic, to the Filipino community in San Diego. “There is a need for help. They need a trusted voice,” she added.

For now, Filipino activists and leaders like Fields and Sanderlin are working to make the Filipino community as well as it can be with what is available,

“We are trying to help each other. That’s how we cope,” Sanderlin said.

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