D.C. promises translation of vaccine information after complaints

The District’s efforts to make its coronavirus vaccine website accessible to non-English speakers — including translations through an automated Google Translate button, not the professional translations that the city promised earlier — did not meet the standards set forth in the law, advocates have argued.

Assistant City Administrator Jay Melder said at a D.C. Council meeting on March 17 that professional translations would probably be completed within 10 days.

After city lawmakers and community members complained that those translations have yet to appear, the D.C. health department said on Twitter that “accurate and culturally competent” updates are nearly ready.

“I think D.C. is not following the law here,” said Kathy Zeisel, an attorney at the Children’s Law Center, one of many organizations involved in enforcing the 2004 law.

Those groups sent a joint letter to D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) on Thursday asking for better translations.

“It’s especially concerning because we know that immigrants in D.C. have really been disproportionately affected” by coronavirus cases and deaths, Zeisel said.

Her nonprofit law firm, which represents children as well as their guardians, sent a message in Spanish to its adult clients informing them about coronavirus vaccines. Many wrote back, Zeisel said, saying that they wanted a shot but couldn’t navigate the city’s website to register for one.

Laura Camarata, a staffer at the law firm who speaks Spanish, called those clients and filled out the forms for them so that they could get vaccinated, Zeisel said.

The Google Translate option on the registration form caused several problems for non-English speakers, advocates said. Error messages popped up in English, not Spanish, for example, and the phrase “Book your appointment” used the Spanish word for a physical book, not the word for schedule.

Similar problems have occurred in other jurisdictions. In Maryland, the state’s Spanish-language vaccine registration page initially used the word for car race in the section that asked people for their race, sex and ethnicity. Because of a Google Translate error, the Virginia health department’s online Spanish-language FAQ at one point stated that vaccinations were not necessary — when officials meant to say that no one would be forced to get a shot.

In the District, language issues go beyond the registration website. Camarata said that although she indicated on the form that each of the patients she helped would prefer responses from the city in Spanish, four out of five people she recently signed up got emails or calls from the city offering them appointments in English.

One woman called Camarata, saying: “I think I got a phone call from them, but it’s in English. I have no idea what it’s saying.”

When Camarata went to get her own shot at a D.C. recreation center, she found herself acting as an impromptu translator for some of the other patients, who wanted to ask the pharmacist if their medications could cause any unsafe interactions with the vaccination.

D.C. vaccination site workers have access to a telephone translation service, though some advocates have said sites don’t offer the option to patrons or make clear that it’s available.

Latinos in general, and the District’s Spanish-speaking community, have been hit hard by the virus. As of Friday, just under 20 percent of all D.C.’s reported cases involved Hispanic residents, who make up just 11 percent of the city’s population.

D.C. has more than three times more non-Hispanic White residents than Hispanic residents, but more Hispanic people than non-Hispanic White people have died of covid-19. And while racial and ethnic data on vaccinations remains very incomplete, White residents are far ahead of their Latino and Black counterparts.

The District reported 136 new coronavirus cases Friday and two deaths from the virus. Maryland reported 1,840 new cases — the most in a single day since January — and 14 deaths, and Virginia reported 1,542 cases and 15 deaths.

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