Since posting a video to my YouTube channel and an accompanying article with a full transcript and sources to my website, I’ve received a lot of attention. To be clear, my original goal was not to draw attention to myself, but rather to an issue that is near and dear to my heart: my freelance medical interpreter colleagues here in the Richmond, Virginia area, being unable to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Unfortunately what is happening here is happening in places all over the country, and my thoughts are also with my medical interpreter colleagues who have been unable to get vaccinated elsewhere. I would like to take this opportunity to not only clarify a few things, but also to share some things that I have learned since the original video in question was published.
Began Applying for the Vaccine in Late December
When supply of the vaccine was not so much of an issue here back in December, when many healthcare workers were declining to get vaccinated, it now appears my colleagues (and I, at the time) fell into this strange gap of healthcare workers who did not have an employer to register them for vaccination on the VAMS (Vaccine Administration Management) system, nor a facility that was willing to sign them up. I realize now, only after hours upon hours of research, speaking with many different people, and hearing stories of other healthcare workers who have been unable to get vaccinated as of yet, that in the beginning, the local health districts did not really have a system in place for non-employees.
The Contractor Catch-22
It was incorrectly assumed that all healthcare facilities would offer the vaccine to all contractors who worked at them, or that the companies with which the freelancers (not just interpreters) were contracted would offer the vaccine to them. Unfortunately, many of the companies that utilize contractors are not located in the states their contractors operate in, and given the almost entirely locality-specific vaccine registration process, it would be a logistical nightmare for these companies to have had to apply in not only each state their contractors practice in, but also their specific counties, cities, and health districts.
Contract medical interpreters fell through the cracks, which is something that media outlets are just now picking up on. To be fair, my frustration wasn’t something immediate either. It was a slow burn; something that built gradually with each time I’d converse with one of my colleagues who didn’t have the fortune to get this life-saving vaccine like I did. This issue is just now getting attention, but freelance medical interpreters have been sitting by patiently waiting their turn since December, and the vaccine supply is now stretched thin. Even if the local health departments and VDH (the Virginia Department of Health, which now has a centralized statewide system for vaccine administration) decide to now dole out appointments to medical interpreters (like they have been to those who now qualify for phase 1B) they’ll likely be looking at a long wait.
Through the course of the entire process of not only trying to get myself vaccinated, but also working closely with other freelance medical interpreters in my area, all of us received mixed messages from local health departments and VDH itself. From the beginning, we were met with confusion when we explained we were contractors, often being told to get our employer to sign us up. We were even sent forms as if we were managers of medical facilities! We’d eventually hit a dead end and have to start the process all over again with the calls, the e-mails, and filling out forms. Sometimes people expressed sympathy, sometimes surprise, and sometimes we were even told to be patient, that our time would come, and we had done everything we could do to get our spot in line. Meanwhile phase 1B started and people who qualified were suddenly scheduling their vaccination appointments. Someone expressed outrage on social media, and VDH responded that they would get to the medical interpreters when they got to them.
In my video, in which I’m sure you’ve noticed I’m reading from a script, I do my best to carefully lay out the facts. I was vaccinated out of sheer luck, being offered the vaccine by two different entities (not my local health department or VDH). While I am white, the majority of the dozen or so freelance on-site medical interpreters who I have spoken with and have not been vaccinated (despite very much wanting to be) are predominantly Hispanic and/or Black.
There are stark disparities in health outcomes from COVID-19 along racial lines (well-documented and publicized, see sources at the end of this article). Unequal racial distribution of the vaccine in the United States is also well-documented and publicized. Interpreters in my area, predominantly belonging to the racial groups affected by these disparities, serve communities that are also affected by these disparities. Interpreters have connections with these communities. Language access has severely impacted the dissemination of health information in these communities. VDH has shown that they do not prioritize language access because they recently made the news for utilizing Google Translate to incorrectly translate critical health information during the pandemic.
The only conclusion I truly arrive at from these facts I just mentioned that I presented in the video is that vaccinating freelance on-site medical interpreters is a good first step if VDH and local health departments want to be proactive about addressing racial disparities. If these communities are skeptical of the vaccine, seeing people they have meaningful connections with getting this vaccine may very well put their mind at ease or even just start a conversation that needs to be had.
Fallout from the Video
Unfortunately I have seen people jump to conclusions without watching the whole video or reading my carefully-worded statement. I’ve had many people make well-intentioned suggestions, only to repeat exactly what steps I’ve already publicly mentioned my colleagues have taken to attempt to get vaccinated. While these responses are frustrating despite their good will at face value, some of the responses I’ve received have been much less kind.
I had one person approach me via email insisting that I give out the personal contact information of all my colleagues who have been unable to get vaccinated, to which I politely responded multiple times that I cannot give out people’s personal contact information without their permission. I kindly asked this same person no less than three times during the course of our correspondence if they would like me to pass along their contact information to my colleagues while I waited to hear back from my colleagues as to whether or not it was okay to share their information. The person in question never responded to me on this point, but proceeded to question me repeatedly (in a manner that I honestly found to be rather aggressive) on why I believe racism is the motive behind my colleagues not getting vaccinated. Despite my repeating and explaining in more depth a few choice points from the video, it appears that this person not only had already reached their own conclusions before reaching out to me, but that they were pressed to publish an article on our conversation without even concluding it, less than an hour or two after our exchange. Furthermore, my professionalism was publicly called into question.
Upon being sent the article by a colleague, I initially decided not to respond. I chose to continue to do what I always do: surround myself with fellow professional interpreters who believe in our profession and know the value of uplifting others instead of tearing them down. I firmly believe that this is how we elevate the profession of interpretation to the level of recognition it deserves, and not by finding ways to undercut and undermine our peers. I also believe my actions speak for themselves.
I have nothing to gain from bringing attention to this issue; I am simply leveraging my existing platform and presence to help my colleagues who are being left behind. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m not the type of person to say, “I got mine; who cares if you get yours.” Quite frankly, I won’t stop speaking out about this issue even after my Richmond, Virginia colleagues are vaccinated, because there’s still so much more work left to be done across the country.
Despite my best efforts, news of my being publicly named in an article calling the issue I was bringing attention to “fake news” reached the eyes and ears of some of my colleagues who have not been able to be vaccinated. Many of us are already afraid of potential retaliation for shedding light on this issue, and sadly some of my colleagues, seeing that potential being realized, are more afraid than ever to speak out about these issues. One of my colleagues, despite previously expressing interest in being interviewed by the media if the opportunity arose, has now expressed that they “don’t even feel comfortable being interviewed” by the media anymore. My colleague, a freelance medical interpreter in the greater Richmond area, was quoted with permission but has asked not to be named.
I felt the need to clear up any misconceptions about my side of the story before it gained any more traction than it already has. I truly appreciate all the support you all have given us. I’ve been keeping all of my unvaccinated Richmond area colleagues in the loop to the best of my ability and have passed along all the useful resources you have been sharing. I sincerely hope that they are able to get vaccinated soon as they continue to work in-site in high-risk medical environments.
As of the writing of this article, not a single colleague of mine in my area that I have been actively assisting even has an appointment for their COVID-19 vaccine.
If you are a freelance on-site medical interpreter trying to get vaccinated, I hope this article I’ve written on how other interpreters across the country are getting vaccinated will be helpful to you. I periodically update it with more information as I have it.