‘It’s important to have someone who looks like you’: Orange County epidemiologist shares experience on pandemic frontlines

Alvina Chu explains representation builds stronger community

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Alvina Chu calls herself a disease detective.

Working with the Florida Department of Health in Orange County, the epidemiologist has been tracking the virus and determining the next moves in the fight against COVID-19.

Chu said she has had life-long interest in science building up to this moment. Both of her parents are physicians from Hong Kong.

Dr. Raul Pino, the health department’s director said she has been key as the Orange County navigated the coronavirus pandemic over the past year.

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“Alvina is one of my secret weapons,” he said. “(She) left a few weeks before the pandemic started and she was the one who said: ‘Listen this is a pandemic, this is not going to happen (again) in maybe 100 years. I have to be there with you guys,” he said about her return to the agency.

Pino said she is someone he can trust, often tapping her to help lead the coronavirus weekly briefings for the county.

Anytime Chu takes the podium, filling in for Pino, she said her mom is tuning in to watch.

“She often lets people know I’m going to be on the press conferences,” Chu said laughing, adding that during the tough times of the pandemic she’s grateful to have such a proud mom.

Chu said that her presence as a Chinese American is important in her line of work too, as health officials work to build trust within communities of color.

“I think it’s important to see yourself reflected, your culture reflected. As someone who has integrated into American life -- leadership, government, epidemiology, science, I think that it is important to have someone who looks like you in those fields,” she said.

Proud of her heritage, Chu said harmful rhetoric toward the Asian community has made battling the pandemic tougher, personally. She’s not just battling misinformation or a new virus but what many referred to as the “China virus” or “kung flu.”

“I mean, I’m sure if we had an Orlando virus people wouldn’t be happy about that,” she said.

Chu added that the worst part is how the derogatory phrases turned into physical violence. The epidemiologist said the recent attacks on Asian Americans have hit close to home.

“I’ve seen the video that they have on the news that they play about 70 year old women who gets beaten in the street,” she said while grabbing a tissue. “Both my parents in are their 80s and when I see that I think of my mom or my dad with the violence.”

The scientist said the attacks are unprovoked and hard to wrap her mind around.

“I think the attacks and the discrimination that has been directed towards someone who could be like my parents or myself, where we consider ourselves to be productive citizens of the United States, is difficult to understand,” she said. “It’s essentially a betrayal.”

Chu said during the month of May, known as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, she hopes people remember not to just honor the community but reflect on how they treat them.

“I would just hope that as we highlight the great contributions that Asian Americans have put into this community that we can also think about how we view them or treat them whenever we encounter them in the general population,” she said.