A Sense of Hope: Interpreters/Translators Share Their Vaccination Journey

As the country turns to vaccination to end the pandemic, translators and interpreters discuss what receiving the vaccine means to them.

In the months before every adult in the U.S. became eligible for the vaccine, the decentralized structure for getting needles in arms resulted in disparity at the local and state levels. Because it was left up to state and local health authorities to make the final determinations as to who qualified as essential personnel for purposes of the vaccine, many frontline interpreters found themselves excluded from Phase 1 vaccinations.

Following the release of the U.S. COVID-19 Vaccination Program recommendations, ATA sent a letter last December, co-signed by 20 other organizations, petitioning the CDC to explicitly include on-site medical interpreters among the listed examples of health care personnel eligible for Phase 1 vaccinations.1 In January, ATA sent another letter urging the CDC to explicitly list on-site interpreters in medical, court, and other settings among the listed examples of frontline essential workers eligible for Phase 1 vaccinations.2

ATA encouraged its members to share the letters with their state and local public health departments, hospitals/clinics, and health care providers. Members were also asked to send the letters to their district’s legislators, reminding them about the vital function interpreters and translators perform for their constituents. The message was clear: translators and interpreters are essential workers in the fight against the pandemic.

Now, with the country’s vaccination distribution program kicking into high gear, we asked interpreters and translators what getting vaccinated means to them both personally and professionally. We also asked them if the advocacy efforts of translator and interpreter organizations had an impact on their eligibility for early vaccination. Here are their stories.

María Baker

Madison, Alabama

I’m primarily a conference and health care interpreter. I work about 20 hours a week at outpatient clinics in our local hospital system. I received the vaccine in February through the hospital.

I was excited to see the letter ATA wrote to the CDC requesting that interpreters receive the vaccine. After sending a copy to the Alabama Department of Public Health, the COVID-19 task force, and the agency I work with, I believe it was the agency that made the difference in terms of my eligibility. They talked to the hospital on behalf of their interpreters. As a result, we were able to get appointments starting in February.

I believe receiving the vaccine will bring about some changes, but this will take time. For now, we’ll continue taking the same precautions while working in person as we have been for over a year now. We’ll also continue working in compliance with health care authorities in each state and following the requirements of each facility.

It’s essential that our professional organizations defend our well-being and safety at work. This advocacy can equip us with the right tools to, in turn, advocate for ourselves and our colleagues. I’m personally grateful for ATA’s efforts in this area and proud to belong to an organization that makes advocacy a priority.

To me, getting the vaccine means hope. Hope that other interpreters will be able to receive it. Hope that other minorities will be able to receive it. Hope that we will all be safer at work, especially patients. It means the hope that, sooner rather than later, we’ll be able to hug our family and friends tightly and turn the current crisis into a mere memory.

Katerina Borghi

Irvine, California

My practice as a freelance federal and state court Spanish interpreter in the private civil market can take me anywhere from a swanky high-rise law office to the lot of an industrial warehouse, and even to the intimate examining room of an orthopedic surgeon. After years of field experience honing this craft, I’ve come to recognize the element of variety as a unique privilege of owning a small business; that is, the flexibility to choose where the job will take me. As the pandemic set in, the ability to offer my clients an in-person option became more unfeasible and more dangerous for myself and those around me.

On February 22, I received my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine as part of California’s Phase 1A, which included medical and other on-site interpreters. Being vaccinated is an assurance that I’ll be able to better protect both myself and those I serve wherever and whenever my work is needed. As remote events remain and we inch closer to herd immunity, vaccination along with masks are crucial precautions that afford me greater flexibility to support the clients and limited-English-proficient population that depend on my services.

The advocacy efforts by ATA and others are key toward recognizing and safeguarding the vital work of professional interpreters like me across so many sectors. I encourage those of my colleagues who have the desire to get the vaccine to do so. I’m deeply thankful to ATA, and to all those associations and stakeholders who advocated for our vaccine eligibility. Our profession merits protection in the crucial work that we do so that we may continue to do that work safely.

Nina Gafni

McLean, Virginia

I’m a freelance French, German, and Italian into English translator, interpreter, editor, and language coach focusing on legal, financial, medical, and genealogy matters. Most of my interpreting is focused on medical, but also legal matters. I spend a lot of time in hospitals interpreting for doctors, nurses, and patients. I also interpret in school settings for meetings with teachers, students, and parents. Some of what I do can be done virtually, but other things must be done in person.

To me, getting the vaccine is one small step on the road to normalcy. Vaccines save lives. They protect me, my family, and everyone else I come into contact with.

I was eager to get the vaccine because it meant I could accept jobs I would not have felt safe accepting before. Back in December, I had to turn down a request to interpret for people getting tested for COVID because I feared I might get infected. I don’t like turning down requests to help people, but I had to think about what might happen to my family if I got COVID. Now, I feel I can be part of the solution, not the problem.

I qualified for the vaccine because, as a medical interpreter, I’m considered a health care worker. I also later qualified in Virginia, where I live, because parents of disabled adults qualify as unpaid caregivers. (I have an adult daughter on the autism spectrum.) However, getting an appointment was a complete nightmare!

When I first tried to get an appointment, ATA had not yet written the letter to the CDC. I tried calling a major health care system in my area, since I often interpret at their hospitals. However, I was told that only people in their system would get vaccinated and that I would have to go through my service provider. When I called my service provider, I was told they had not been given any information about medical interpreters getting the vaccine and that I should call my doctor. I then called my doctor and was told the practice did intend to offer the vaccine to its patients once it was authorized to do so.

Once Fairfax County set up its vaccine appointments, I immediately signed up. However, when I talked to a scheduler, I was informed that, as a medical interpreter, I didn’t need to get the vaccine since I “only did virtual appointments.” I quickly enlightened the scheduler that I had recently interpreted for two appointments at major area hospitals. I explained that I was in a room with doctors, nurses, and patients during those appointments. However, it wasn’t until I also mentioned I had recently been asked to interpret for people getting tested for COVID that the scheduler agreed I definitely qualified to get the vaccine.

I applaud ATA’s efforts. I think the letter to the CDC is a major stride. However, there’s still a lot of work to be done. For starters, people need to realize just what a medical interpreter does. We provide a vital communication link. Skilled doctors and nurses don’t always mean skilled communicators. Patients with limited English proficiency have the legal right to receive interpreting and deserve to be treated with dignity. As interpreters, we know how to convey the doctor’s (or nurse’s) message in a culturally sensitive and appropriate manner. As such, we’re part of the medical team, and like the doctors, nurses, and patients, we need to be protected. We should never have to justify why we need a vaccine.

We do the same work as in-house interpreters, and breathe the same air as the doctors, nurses, and patients. Giving vaccines to in-house personnel but denying them to freelance interpreters is the functional equivalent of sending a freelance interpreter into a battle zone with no protection. Why would you protect certain members of the medical team but not others? We freelancers need to be treated in the same manner as everyone else. ATA is a highly respected organization that can definitely play a vital part in ensuring that we’re given the consideration we deserve.

Judy Jenner

Las Vegas, Nevada

Before the pandemic, I averaged about 100 flights a year, and most of them were for interpreting assignments. All my work travel came to a halt at the end of the first quarter of 2020, and I can count the number of in-person interpreting assignments I did that year on one hand. After November 2020, I ventured outside as little as possible until I could get vaccinated, which happened early in January 2021.

I had been active in trying to figure out when it would be my turn to receive the vaccine and had closely monitored the governor’s Twitter feed. But it was a colleague, fellow Nevada court certified Spanish interpreter Debbie Silvera, who also happens to be a virologist, who let me know I was eligible (under the “community support frontline staff court/legal” category as defined by the governor). She gave me a link to a vaccination clinic. I entered all the information pertaining to my court interpreting work, including that I wanted to go back to interpret in prisons, courtrooms, and law firms. I was given an appointment for my first Pfizer shot the very next day.

To say I felt like a million dollars after receiving the second dose (side effects and all) is probably still an understatement. I’m grateful for modern medicine and the Herculean effort it took to get a vaccine in less than a year.

Even though ATA’s advocacy efforts didn’t lead to me getting the vaccine, it’s so fitting that a colleague’s efforts did. We really do look out for each other in this profession, and as I’ve said many times before, we’re stronger together. As I write this, I’m getting ready to meet Debbie for dinner. I also have my first in-person interpreting assignment in a federal prison in a few weeks.

Ryan Le

Los Angeles, California

I’m a freelance Vietnamese interpreter and translator. Along with other colleagues, I saw a big reduction in work due to the pandemic in early 2020.

Getting vaccinated is important because it not only protects me and those around me, but also contributes to the goal of reaching herd immunity so life will return to normal. Getting vaccinated has not changed the way I work on an on-site interpreting assignment. I still wash my hands, wear a mask, and maintain social distancing in public. However, I do feel more confident when being requested for on-site assignments.

I qualified for the vaccine because I’m a medical interpreter and part of the Phase 1A allocation (health care personnel). Even though I didn’t have to mention ATA’s letter to the CDC when talking to a Kaiser representative on the phone to make the appointment for my first dose, the effort and dedication of ATA and other professional organizations in our field played a big role in this quest. The moment I mentioned I was a medical interpreter, I was given the green light to schedule the appointment. It shows that the work of interpreters is recognized by others as essential to help prevent the spread of the virus and treat COVID-19 patients and beyond. Continuing to advocate about what we do is so important not only to get us recognized, but also to show how necessary it is to provide interpreting services for underserved communities in our society.

Antoni Maroto

Salt Lake City, Utah

I’m an ATA-certified English>Spanish translator who has been providing translation services since 2004, and interpreting services since 2018. While I’m originally from Barcelona, I’ve been calling the U.S. home for the past five years. Relocating prompted me to start specializing in the health care and medical industries. I mainly work with clinics and hospitals to bridge language barriers with Spanish-speaking patients.

As a Salt Lake City resident, I’m a member of the Utah Translators and Interpreters Association (UTIA), an ATA affiliate. Thanks to them, independent medical interpreters were granted early access to the vaccine in January 2021. I had been rejecting in-person assignments due to safety concerns since March 2020. I’m happy I can take those on again thanks to the protection the vaccine offers!

To schedule my vaccine appointment, I showed one of my clients—a medical interpreting agency—both ATA’s letter to the CDC and UTIA’s statement confirming that in-person medical interpreters qualified as health care workers in Utah. My client then issued a letter as proof of my eligibility. I had to show that letter and my identification badge at the pharmacy where I got the vaccine. Nobody questioned me or asked for additional proof.

I’m very grateful for the advocacy efforts of ATA and UTIA on behalf of medical interpreters. As health care workers, we shouldn’t be risking our health without protecting ourselves accordingly. After a challenging year, I’m happy that work will continue to pick up thanks to this vaccine. I’ve even decided to become a certified medical interpreter to continue to give more to my community!

María Rosana Mestre

Avon, Indiana

As a sworn translator and interpreter, getting the vaccine was a huge relief for me. In my family, we were concerned about my mother who lives with us. (She is 68 with a heart condition.) When the pandemic began, I decided to reduce the risk to her by putting my interpreting services on hold and accepting only translation assignments.

When vaccinations started for essential personnel in Indiana, I immediately confirmed through the health care system that I would qualify since I provide medical interpreting services. They were very welcoming when I registered. Language services are essential at any time, and this pandemic will confirm to society how important it is for any human to communicate in their language, to be understood, and to be able to express themselves.

I think of how medical records from around the world detailing the observance of COVID symptoms and the evolution of the virus can contribute to science. Patients’ experiences (narrated in their language) are also essential for advancing studies about the virus. I imagine many doctors trying to get relevant information from patients and the patients being unable to describe their symptoms due to a language barrier.

One positive change we’ll see after the pandemic is the rising demand in language services. There will also be increased importance as a freelancer to be part of an association like ATA, advocating for our rights when the time comes. As freelancers, we love freedom and working remotely, and being part of a network of fellow interpreters and translators makes it easier for the profession.

We’re in a globalized society, where you can have a work conference from anywhere with people around the world with a common purpose. Remote work will continue to be a part of the post-pandemic world, expanding opportunities for translators and interpreters to act as communication intermediaries.

Madeline Rios

Claremont, California

As a certified translator and interpreter, I’ve had the good fortune of being able to mostly work from home during the pandemic. Unfortunately, mostly doesn’t mean always.

Some of the cases I’ve worked on in the federal court system since prior to the COVID-19 crisis still have a need for on-site interpreting, in particular at corrections facilities. Though, as a freelancer, I can turn down such assignments, I have, in fact, worked from time to time at institutions plagued by the virus. I’ve taken precautions, donning two masks plus a face shield long before Dr. Anthony Fauci so advised the public. Yet my family and friends take little comfort in my assurances that many new safety precautions are now in place. Indeed, my reports to my loved ones conveniently leave out minor details, such as a defendant’s mask that constantly slipped down below his mustache, or the time when I was informed at the last minute that an interviewee was currently under quarantine.

My chance to get inoculated was based on being over the age of 65. At the time, medical interpreters, through concerted advocacy, were gaining recognition as a priority group, but most judicial interpreters could not yet qualify. Los Angeles County, where I live, has now lost at least three criminal court interpreters to COVID-19: Sergio Cafaro, Daniel Felix, and 49-year-old Policarpo Chaj. The simple fact is that on-site interpreters work in closer proximity to people than occurs in general human interactions. And whether at a hospital, in a courtroom, or at a jail, the population they work with has a higher incidence of exposure than is seen in the general population.

I urge my colleagues to get vaccinated as soon as possible and urge our professional associations to keep raising their voice in advocacy.

Jennifer Santiagos

Garden Grove, California

I’m a freelance certified health care interpreter based in Orange County, California. I’ve been interpreting professionally for more than 11 years. I also work in immigration, community, and legal settings.

A few days before Christmas 2020, after emailing ATA’s letter to the CDC to my county’s vaccine task force and mentioning that I serve on ATA’s Advocacy Committee, I received a personal phone call from the assistant director of the public health department. She assured me that Orange County would prioritize freelance health care interpreters under Phase 1A in their COVID-19 vaccine allocation plans.

I received my first dose on January 11 at Kaiser Permanente Anaheim, after two weeks of persistently contacting Kaiser and referencing ATA’s letter and the information from the public health department. I was told to bring my interpreter badge to the appointment, which I did, although no one ended up asking for it.

Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 was a momentous occasion for me. The experience evoked a sense of gratitude, solemnity, and responsibility. I was also eager to share my story with colleagues and friends to inspire hope.

Being aware of CDC equity guidelines, I took it a step further and called Kaiser to find out if they were offering the vaccine to non-member health care personnel. Sure enough, they were. I shared this good news with a few local language services companies who then notified their networks. Numerous colleagues reached out to me for input regarding what steps they needed to take to get vaccinated.

Being fully vaccinated gives me more confidence to continue providing in-person interpreting services, whether in medical clinics, city council meetings, and eventually in other community settings.

I believe the advocacy efforts of ATA and other professional organizations (particularly the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters’ social media campaign) have empowered interpreters with knowledge and encouragement to self-advocate for their own vaccination. This has not always been an easy process, as some states and regions did not prioritize interpreters as readily as mine did.

Lorena Ortiz Schneider

Santa Barbara, California

I’m a full-time professional interpreter working in mental health and workers’ compensation medical treatment and evaluation settings, among other areas.

I qualified for the vaccine by reaching out in January to the local clinic for whom I do translations and asked if they might help me and my colleagues in the area qualify for the first round of vaccinations. After showing them ATA’s December 2020 letter to the CDC, the clinic immediately went to work. They realized that covering face-to-face interpreters was important, given the work we do to communicate with their LEP population. By simply asking, I managed to help get 12 interpreters vaccinated in early January!

Being eligible for the vaccine in the first round was a big deal for me. Not only did it keep me and others safe, but it also provided peace of mind and gave me the confidence I needed to perform my duties fully. While the medical facilities I frequent are taking stringent precautions and my assignments are still primarily remote, there are occasions when nothing but an on-site interpreter will do. Knowing I have less of a chance of bringing COVID-19 home and infecting my loved ones than before I was vaccinated is a huge relief.

As chair of ATA’s Advocacy Committee, I know that advocacy efforts on behalf of translators and interpreters are very important. Educating the public and government officials about our role in society is something that must continue if interpreters are to be afforded equal status with other parties within the medical team.

Carol Shaw

Garland, Texas

For years, most of my interpreting assignments have been depositions and the occasional hearing at a small municipal court. I also train staff interpreters for a nearby school district. All three settings involve multiple people interacting in a small room. In March 2020, the pandemic slammed the door on all those in-person settings.

So, along with my colleagues around the world, I learned to do the online thing. Depositions, hearings, classes, and everything else went virtual. When vaccinations began, I was encouraged by ATA’s advocacy for health care interpreters. It meant I could stop worrying about some of my colleagues. Eventually, my county began offering vaccines on a broader basis, and I signed up as soon as it was an option. I was fortunate as my reaction to each of the shots only lasted a day or two.

Being fully vaccinated doesn’t mean that my calendar will suddenly fill with in-person assignments. My clients are being cautious, which I applaud. Besides, most of them have adjusted to Zoom depositions and may never fully return to in-person proceedings. It will be a few months before the municipal court hearings and interpreting classes return to in-person.

But having gotten the vaccine now means I’m more likely to be healthy when clients do come calling.

Getting vaccinated also meant that when asked to serve in-person at a youth facility, I was able to join a host of my colleagues and accept. It feels like those doors that slammed shut last year are finally letting a sliver of light show through.

  1. Read ATA’s December 17 letter to the CDC requesting Phase 1 eligibility for medical interpreters, http://bit.ly/ATA-CDC.
  2. Read ATA’s request to the CDC to explicitly list medical interpreters and other on-site interpreters as essential workers, http://bit.ly/ATA-CDC-interpreters.
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