International Community Health Services (ICHS) is one of the nation’s nearly 1,400 federally qualified health centers serving 30 million people, most of them low income, immigrants, and refugees. In February 2020, ICHS was also the nation’s first federally qualified health center with a positive COVID-19 diagnosis. ICHS staff have been on the frontlines with our communities since the start of the pandemic, having vaccinated over 28,000 people against COVID-19, conducted over 90,000 tests, and cared for those who tested positive who are recovering at home. ICHS offers a window into the pandemic and a tumultuous yearlong series of events. Our stories bear witness to those who were our champions, confidants, and caretakers. They show the resilience of our community and the transformative power of simple kindness.
This piece is part of COVID-19 in 2020: A look back on health equity & community resilience in Chinatown-International District. The project was led by Seattle photo-journalist Karen Ducey and former ICHS marketing and communications manager Angela Toda in partnership with International Examiner. The project was funded by Historic South Downtown, King County 4Culture, and Society of Professional Journalists.
After living through the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic for one full year, new vaccines now offer hope that life can — and will — return to solid ground.
This challenging year will be hard to forget. It changed us forever.
Let’s look back.
In early March, 2020, the COVID-19 virus first found its way into the Chinatown-International District, the hub of the Asian Pacific American community. At the International House Apartments, an employee tested positive for the deadly new disease. Two other employees were in quarantine.
The high-rise structure, constructed in 1978 after activists demanded more quality affordable housing for the area, was home to 100 non-English speaking seniors. No one knew if other residents there — or in the other low-income apartments in the neighborhood — had also been infected.
The International House Apartments is several blocks from the bustling medical-dental clinic operated by International Community Health Services (ICHS), the largest health care provider for APIs in Washington state. Today, ICHS provides services to 27,000 patients in more than 50 languages at 11 clinics and sites.
Springing into action, ICHS President and CEO Teresita Batayola and other non-profit leaders established a drive-through testing site on March 16 in front of ICHS’ clinic on 8th Avenue South. The public health department provided 200 test kits. In the first week, ICHS staff administered 96 tests. Results for 16 came back positive for the virus.
As the pandemic raged through the state and the number of fatal infections soared, Washington Governor Jay Inslee ordered the closure of nonessential businesses.
Restaurants and shops through the neighborhood were shuttered. Residents were advised to stay home and avoid public contact. Travel ground to a halt.
Meanwhile, ICHS operations and services were drastically curtailed. At one point, 40 percent of all staff were furloughed. There was a desperate search for protective masks, gowns, medical supplies, and financial support.
While ICHS waited for funding relief through the emergency federal stimulus package, it managed to keep its door open thanks to the scrappy commitment of staff and an outpouring of community support. ICHS received a stream of donated surgical masks and other vital supplies as well as financial contributions from individuals, foundations, and businesses.
On March 30, Crawfish King surprised ICHS staff with 80 packaged meals. On April 18, Maria Nguyen, an Everett resident, drove down to the ICHS Holly Park clinic with 100 cotton masks she had sewn herself. On June 5, Tasty Pot donated 40 packaged meals and 40 bubble teas to the Shoreline clinic. The Taiwanese American Professionals-Seattle brought 60 meals to the Bellevue clinic.
These unexpected acts of kindness and generosity have continued regularly—and frequently—to this day.
ICHS has weathered the storm, steadily ramping up its services once again.
To date, ICHS has vaccinated over 28,000 people and conducted about 90,000 tests. “We have also informed many, many people about vaccine safety and cared for those who tested positive who are recovering at home,” Batayola said.
ICHS has put into place new protocols, including masking, increased hygiene, testing, and social distancing. “Telehealth appointments and prescription delivery are now available,” Batayola said. “We continue to adapt to the evolving health care environment.”
ICHS operates an assisted living program at Legacy House, adjacent to the ICHS clinic. The program is called PACE, an acronym that stands for Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly. It currently serves 65 people. It’s the model for a new “aging in place” program that ICHS plans to open on north Beacon Hill in 2023, after completion of a $20 million fundraising effort.
Mike Wong, ICHS Healthy Aging and Wellness Program Director, said Legacy House residents were “hyper-aware of COVID-19” early on because many hailed from China. “Our participants were already staying home and declining mass gatherings like our regular day center activities when the virus was not yet global news.”
In late December 2020, the first deliveries of COVID-19 vaccines arrived at Legacy House. “Within about four weeks we had administered at least a first dose of the vaccine to many of our residents and participants,” Wong said. “Now we’re in a wait-and-see mode.”
Alan Chun, an ICHS physician for 27 years, proudly noted: “ICHS has successfully managed Legacy House through the past year of this epidemic without a single resident being infected.”
But battling the COVID-19 virus itself hasn’t been the only giant challenge.
Last year, President Trump fanned the flames of xenophobia and anti-Asian sentiment by using the terms “China virus” and “Kung Flu.” On March 26, vandals smashed a window at Jade Garden Restaurant. On April 12, three men plastered alt-right white supremacist stickers near Asian businesses. On May 11, the Viet Wah supermarket was burglarized.
Other incidents of vandalism and robbery have proliferated.
In 2021, increasing reports of attacks against Asian seniors in Chinatowns across the country—beginning around Lunar New Year—brought renewed concern about a hidden public health crisis that has been ignored. It was no different in the Chinatown-International District, where community elders have been frequently assaulted and robbed for many years.
“The disease of racial bigotry and hatred has been heightened during this pandemic,” Batayola said. “It’s so tragic that these acts of violence and scapegoating have targeted elderly and women. We need to put a stop to this.”
Batayola has been a leading voice among community health center leaders calling on the federal government to redress the historic inequities in policies and programs serving immigrants and refugees.
Following the May 25, 2020 murder of George Floyd, an unarmed African American in Minneapolis, thousands of demonstrators marched through Seattle streets, demanding an end to police brutality. Over 100 businesses were vandalized, including 20 in the CID. Jade Garden was struck again. The area looked like a scarred war zone. The protests further highlighted the fragility of the neighborhood.
Volunteers went up and down the streets, removing debris and covering storefronts with plywood. Over the next week, young artists painted the plywood with beautiful Asian murals and words of inspiration and racial unity.
Today, many storefronts and small businesses in the Chinatown-ID remain boarded up. Fears over public safety continue to deter visitors and to make residents hesitant to leave their apartments.
But community activists and longtime business owners remain optimistic that once the pandemic subsides, the neighborhood will rebuild.
Harry Chan, owner of the Tai Tung Restaurant, established in 1935, said, “Yes, I think things will return to normal. I don’t know when, but it will eventually. Hopefully soon.”