Utah advocate who helped Pacific Islander community fight COVID-19 dies of virus complications

(Photo courtesy of Amber Sundin DeBirk) Community advocate Margarita Satini died Oct. 27, 2020, at the age of 50 from complications of the coronavirus.

Margarita Satini worked “tirelessly” in recent months to ensure Utah’s Pacific Islander community had access to COVID-19 testing and resources, her family said. On Tuesday, Satini, who was 50, died of complications from the coronavirus.

“She truly was selfless,” said Amber Sundin DeBirk, Satini’s sister-in-law.

Satini served as chair of the Utah Pacific Islander Civic Engagement Coalition and on the board of the Utah Pacific Islander Health Coalition. In 2015, Satini ran unsuccessfully for the City Council in Cottonwood Heights, where she lived, and she encouraged people to vote and participate in the 2020 Census.

She also worked as an organizing representative with the Sierra Club Utah Chapter, where she joined as a community organizer less than two years ago. “The work and impact she had on our team, and the community, will last forever,” said Satini’s Sierra Club coworkers, Carly Ferro and Lindsay Beebe, in a statement.

“... She fought every day to provide support for the most vulnerable people in our community, to assuage the grief caused by the same disease that ultimately took her life.”

The pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on communities of color in Utah. Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders make up 1.6% of the state’s population and 3.3% of COVID-19 cases, according to the Utah Department of Health. They also have the second highest mortality rate from the virus, behind the American Indian/Alaska Native population, at 56.7 per 100,000 people.

(Photo courtesy of Amber Sundin DeBirk) Margarita Satini, who died Oct. 27, 2020, of COVID-19 complications, encouraged Utahns to vote and participated in the 2020 census.

For Satini, “community was family” and “family was community,” according to her sister-in-law.

“It was unconditional in how she looked at it, and I wish we could clone her and more people could be like her because it truly is a lesson of how we all should live our lives,” Sundin DeBirk said.

Gov. Gary Herbert issued a statement Tuesday night, saying he was “deeply saddened” to learn of Satini’s death.

“She was a passionate advocate for her community. To say she was dedicated is an understatement — she gave and gave with everything she had. Our prayers and thoughts are with all who mourn her loss tonight,” Herbert said.

Satini is survived by her husband, James Sundin; their four children, Ricky, Keilani, Semisi and Alexander Sundin; and four grandchildren. Satini and Keilani had begun not feeling well after going out to help community members get tested for the virus, Sundin DeBirk said.

On Oct. 19, Satini posted on Facebook that she tested positive. In the last 10 days, her nine family members, who all live together, tested positive, too, Sundin DeBirk said.

Over the past few days, Satini thought she was getting better, her family said. She’d been in contact with her doctors while recovering at home because she had a pacemaker put in earlier this year, according to Sundin DeBirk.

On Tuesday morning, Satini told her husband she was having trouble breathing and felt like she was going to pass out, Sundin DeBirk said. James Sundin called 911, and Satini was transported to a hospital, as her husband followed behind since he couldn’t ride in the ambulance due to COVID-19 restrictions. Doctors were unable to revive Satini, and she died at the hospital, according to her sister-in-law.

Satini was the primary provider for her family, while her husband cared for their children and grandchildren. Sundin DeBirk set up a GoFundMe account Tuesday as a memorial fund. More than $5,000 had been raised as of Tuesday afternoon.

A socially distanced candlelight vigil is planned for 6 p.m. Wednesday on the south steps of the state Capitol. Sundin DeBirk said spaces will be marked off to keep people six feet apart, and masks are required.

The day before she died, Satini was on the weekly Sierra Club call, despite her team members encouraging her to go rest.

“She didn’t want to fall too far behind or miss too much. This speaks volumes to who Margarita was, a tireless advocate for justice,” according to the statement from the Sierra Club.

Satini had a talent for bringing together “folks across the spectrum” and people who seemed like “unlikely allies” to address different issues, said Jake Fitisemanu Jr., co-founder of the Utah Pacific Islander Health Coalition and a West Valley City council member. Inclusivity and inclusion weren’t just buzzwords for Satini, but a real practice, he said.

Friends, colleagues and organizations posted tributes online Tuesday to Satini. Utah’s racial and ethnic minority leaders — Reps. Mark Wheatley, Angela Romero, Karen Kwan, and Sandra Hollins and Senators Jami Iwamoto and Luz Escamilla — also issued a statement Tuesday, describing Satini as “a community powerhouse and beloved mentor.”

“Losing Margarita should remind us all, again, how real and dangerous this pandemic is. Our hospitals are filled and our communities are being affected more than ever. The reckless and selfish attitudes of some who are choosing not to take precautions means that others are suffering and dying,” the statement read.

“How many more good people will we have to lose before all Utahns take this public health crisis seriously?” the legislators asked.

Many people, including Satini’s Sierra Club coworkers, said they would continue Satini’s fight.

“We will never be able to understand why she was taken from us too soon, but we will always keep her fire in our bellies and honor her with our actions and our love for each other," their statement reads.

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.