According to National Nurses United, Filipinos account for 4 percent of registered nurses across the U.S. In California, they constitute nearly 18 percent of registered nurses. And the group has been hit hard by COVID-19.

Data compiled by National Nurses United found that as of Monday, at least 193 registered nurses in the U.S. have died of COVID-19 and related complications. The number is based on media reports, social media posts and obituaries, but the group says it’s likely to be an undercount because many deaths aren’t publicly reported. Of those, about 30 percent were Filipino.

“That’s relatively high, knowing that only 4 percent of U.S. nurses are Filipino,” said Zenei Cortez, president of National Nurses United and the California Nurses Association.

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Zenei Cortez.Courtesy Zenei Cortez

Cortez, who immigrated to the United States from the Philippines in 1974, attributes the deaths to several factors, specifically the shortage of personal protective equipment, raising nurses’ risk of contracting COVID-19.

She also noted a lack of testing among front-liners: A survey conducted by National Nurses United found that 77 percent of nurses aren’t being tested for COVID-19.

It’s an experience Cortez endured after she requested a test from her employer when she developed a sore throat and a fever. Because she had only a few symptoms, her request was declined.

A recent survey conducted by the University of California, Davis’ Bulosan Center for Filipino Studies also revealed low rates of testing in the community, research director Roy Taggueg said. He said the reasons for the low rates of testing need more analysis, but he said they’re linked to the model minority myth, the perception that all Asian Americans are successful and don’t need extra resources.

On Aug. 5, thousands of registered nurse members of National Nurses United rallied at hospital facilities across the country to demand better protections against COVID-19.Courtesy National Nurses United

He said about 40 percent of respondents reported that either they work in health care or have family members working in health care. And because Filipino Americans often live in multigenerational households, the community’s risk of infection is increased.

“One person might be going out, but they definitely are bringing everything back with them when they come home from work, because they’re forced to work out there on the front line,” he said. “We’re talking about their parents, their kids, all of that. It’s a very particular position to be in, and it’s one that I think is unique to the Filipino and Filipino American community.”

Alexander Adia, a co-founder of and researcher with the Brown University Philippine Health Initiative for Research, Service, and Training, said that the effects of COVID-19 on Filipino Americans weren’t unpredictable but that they were masked because of the aggregated collection of health data.

Data from American Public Media Research show that Blacks and Native Americans have suffered the highest rates of COVID-19-related deaths, while Pacific Islanders and Latinos have recently had their highest spikes in numbers of deaths. Meanwhile, Asian Americans, who account for 5.7 percent of the U.S. population, represent 4.2 percent of COVID-19-related deaths.

But in California, where Filipino Americans are about 25 percent of the state’s Asian population, they represent at least 35 percent of coronavirus deaths in that group, according to data compiled by the Los Angeles Times.

Research by the Bulosan Center found that Filipino Americans are also more vulnerable to COVID-19 because of factors like the community’s undocumented population, economic insecurity, lack of health insurance and high rates of pre-existing conditions.

A study published this year by researchers at Brown University and UCLA highlighted that among some Asian subgroups, Filipinos appeared to be in the worst health, with a greater prevalence of high blood pressure, asthma and heart disease.

While Filipino Americans’ diet and lifestyle have been cited as the culprits, structural factors are also linked to those health behaviors, Adia said.

Filipino Americans who work in health care, for instance, may have long commutes, stand on their feet for lengthy shifts and return home to care for members of multigenerational households, leaving little time and energy to exercise or cook healthy food, he said.

“The commentary on being sedentary and eating a high-fat, high-caloric diet — these are products of stress. You don’t have to be Filipino American to stress eat. But if Filipino Americans are bearing a lot of these stressors, then it’s of course going to result in behaviors like that,” Adia said.

Given the disparities, Taggueg said, it’s crucial that information about COVID-19 is disseminated in a culturally sensitive way.

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