Want a Vaccine? Better Interpret for a Hospital Direct

To get a vaccine at University of North Carolina (UNC) Health, you need to work for the hospital directly. That’s what Alan Wolf, director of news, had to say when MultiLingual emailed to congratulate the hospital on giving a medical interpreter one of the state’s first covid-19 vaccines. On December 15, Spanish linguist Jorge Gutierrez received UNC Health – Chapel Hill’s second shot of Pfizer’s BNT162b2 — the first of two coronavirus vaccines currently available in the United States.

Gutierrez has been held up as an exemplar by the language services community, as many interpreters — freelancers in particular – have been left to wonder whether US state governments will include medical interpreters in their definition of frontline workers. In the United States, each state determines in which order whom will receive the two-dose vaccinations. The general consensus has been essential medical personnel go first. The broader concern is will hospitals and governments remember interpreters are essential.

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Wolf says UNC Health wanted to make sure interpreters were included early “because of their important role in caring for covid patients. Jorge was chosen to represent the [interpreter services] department because of his hard and compassionate work during the pandemic and because he had completed the sign-up process and was available on that first afternoon.” Gutierrez interprets primarily in the hospital’s medical intensive care unit (MICU).

Between the Chapel Hill facility where Gutierrez works and its Raleigh and Hillsborough locations, UNC Health employs 30 Spanish interpreters. It also directly contracts what Wolf calls “a number of per-diem interpreters that we use on an as-needed basis,” as well as with language services providers (LSP’s). Both employee and freelance interpreters will be eligible for the vaccine — if they report directly to the hospital that is. Interpreters who work through a language services provider (LSP) will not. “We would expect their agency/interpreting company to cover their interpreters,” says Wolf. By press, he was yet to respond to a follow-up email from MultiLingual asking if UNC Health plans to provide its LSP’s guidance in how to do this.

Bill Rivers, lobbyist for Association of Language Companies (ALC), says, “It would be a travesty for a health care organization to fob this off on the language service companies.” ALC is currently partnering with the American Translators Association on a letter to send the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and 56 US state and territorial health departments to that effect.

Terena Bell
Terena Bell is an independent journalist who writes for The Atlantic, Washington Post, Fast Company and others. She is former CEO of In Every Language.

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