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The COVID-19 vaccine language barrier

Medical Pharmaceutical Translations • Mar 29, 2021 12:00:00 AM

In the ongoing pandemic, getting vaccinated is an immense source of hope for many Americans, and state governments are doing what they can to make the process easier – from sharing information, to setting up appointments. But not all Americans are being treated equally.

A March 22 article featured in US News and World Report explores how state hotlines and other services aren’t equipped to deal with non-English speakers.

In many cases, patients who call a state-run number to set up appointments for the COVID-19 vaccine can choose between information in English or Spanish, but as advocates point out, Spanish is far from the only foreign language spoken in the US.

For example, Virginia, a state featured prominently in the article, also has significant populations of Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, Arabic, Amharic, and Mongolian speakers. There are “dozens more” languages with smaller numbers of speakers, as well. This diversity of populations and languages is typical in most US states.

Some critics may insist that if you live in America, you should speak English – but these people are missing two important details. The first is that the US has no official national language.

The second is that, even if a non-native speaker were to learn English and speak it at an advanced level, they may still prefer to discuss health-related matters in their native language in order to be absolutely certain that they understand important information -- and are understood by healthcare providers.

A third important fact: Federal law forbids healthcare discrimination based on race, national origin, and other factors, Mara Youdelman, an attorney at the National Health Law Program, points out.

Still, providing information about COVID-19 and its vaccine in every language spoken in the US is an understandably dauting task. Even the federal government hasn’t confirmed if its own COVID-19 call center and website, due to launch in May, will be available in a wide range of languages.

Fortunately, some states, like Virginia, do offer callers to their vaccination hotline an option to choose an interpreter in their language of choice…

…but unfortunately, this option can only be accessed by choosing it from a menu in English.

The frustration many non-English speakers have felt has led them to give up. Virginia’s state vaccine hotline, for instance, has registered a significant amount of interrupted calls. Some of this comes from an error in their own system (yet another obstacle), but these interruptions are also frequently due to intimidated or upset patients hanging up – and thus giving up on a chance to get vaccinated.

So, how can this problem be fixed? For now, most experts interviewed in the article recommend seeking out local resources. For instance, individual clinics and doctor’s offices may provide language services for specific communities.

Organizations dedicated to specific linguistic groups are another possible solution. They may offer interpreters or recommendations of healthcare facilities where staff speaks the language in question.

Hopefully, states will also improve their outreach and communication abilities. There is some hope. The CDC’s "Facts about COVID-19 Vaccines" flyer, for instance, is available in more than twenty languages. Now it’s up to hotlines and other state-run resources to catch up.

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