Language Barriers Are Leaving Non-English Speakers Behind In The Vaccine Rollout

A person gives a vaccine
Nearly three months into vaccine distribution in Illinois, there’s no multilinguial helpline for Illinois or Chicago. Manu Fernandez / Associated Press
A person gives a vaccine
Nearly three months into vaccine distribution in Illinois, there’s no multilinguial helpline for Illinois or Chicago. Manu Fernandez / Associated Press

Language Barriers Are Leaving Non-English Speakers Behind In The Vaccine Rollout

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This story is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

Chicagoan David Castillo, 32, of Brighton Park, has spent days working to get his Greek father-in-law and Spanish-speaking aunt a vaccine appointment.

“For both of them it’s been a struggle, because they’re not primarily English-speaking, and the website is all in English. They’re also a little older, so not as proficient with technology, which hampers their efforts,” Castillo said.

As the city of Chicago and state of Illinois continue to direct residents to first-come-first-serve online sign-up systems, getting a vaccine in Illinois requires time, internet research skills and English proficiency. People, often family members of non-English speakers, are spending hours on those English-based, sign-up portals, met constantly with messages of “No upcoming appointments available.”

In Cook County, there’s actually a number you can call if you don’t speak English, don’t have the internet or don’t know how to use their website. But nearly three months into vaccine distribution in Illinois, there’s no multilingual vaccine helpline for the state or city as a whole. The city on Tuesday announced a multilingual helpline will start Thursday, but only for those trying to book an appointment at the new United Center mass vaccination site.

Advocates say non-English speakers are being left behind as a result.

“When a person is limited English-proficient, many times they also have a low level of education, which leads to difficulty navigating, whether it be the internet or just using a laptop,” said Luvia Quiñones, the health policy director at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

Quiñones and others say a hotline is one avenue that could help. Take Cook County, for example, which is receiving 10,000 to 12,000 calls a day from people who opt to use the hotline, which offers Spanish language, in their search for a vaccine.

The county contracted with a firm early-on to hire additional temporary staff to run the phone line.

“We knew from day one that we were going to have to have a hotline to ensure access … for seniors, as well as for any individual who would rather use the phone or doesn’t have access to technology for a microsite,” said Iliana Mora, the Chief Operating Officer of the Cook County Health Ambulatory Services. The “microsite” allows people to view the county’s sign-up page in numerous languages.

Of course, a vaccine sign-up hotline is not the only cure to low vaccination rates. Demand is currently outpacing vaccine supply across the country, vaccine skepticism is declining but still significant, and access issues (such as where vaccination sites are located) still exist.

And some say as long as the system continues to work on a first-come-first-serve basis, it will always favor those with the time and expertise to scour the internet.

“We really continue to express concerns about how to make this process more equitable,” said Dr. Vineet Arora, with the advocacy group IMPACT. “One way would be to use a pre-registration system, when everyone would come in a wave, and then you run a lottery to give out appointment times. These types of things have been done in hospitals and have worked to great effect.”

This system has also been used in other states, where instead of hoping you’ll hit refresh at the exact moment an appointment opens up, you register once and get a call when it’s your turn.

While the city of Chicago has a general COVID-19 hotline, calling it leads you directly to 311, which leads to an automated option menu in English. It does not give you an option to hear the menu in Spanish. Eventually, if you stay on long enough, you’ll get to a person, who can transfer you to the general COVID-19 hotline, where the city can make a translator available. But this line is meant for general COVID-19 questions, not vaccine sign-ups.

“Unfortunately, most people … if they only speak Spanish, they probably are going to assume that they cannot get through to anybody in Spanish, so they probably would just hang up,” Quiñones said.

This problem is not new or unique to Chicago. (Follow one WBEZ reporter’s search to find her Spanish-speaking parents a vaccine.) But Quiñones said it is frustrating that creating a multilingual vaccine hotline has not been a higher priority for the state, given high rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Latino communities and the fact that the digital divide looks to be higher among immigrant communities. The stakes are high, she said.

“I think that there is this assumption that people that don’t speak [English] will get the information somehow, either through a relative or a friend or something,” she said. “But I think it adds to the barrier of the distrust, the unknown and the hesitation around the vaccine. And I think for those that are Spanish speakers … depending on their immigration status, it also adds to their fear of not knowing that this vaccine is safe or not.”

The state and city have taken other important steps to ensuring equitable vaccine access — including running pop-up mass vaccination sites in 15 community areas hit hard by COVID-19, providing Spanish translation at COVID-19 press conferences and including factsheets and PDFs in Spanish on their websites.

And there is hope that a hotline will be available soon. The state has put out a request for proposals for companies to create a multilingual vaccine sign-up hotline.

“Our ask has been to try to prioritize at least the five most-spoken languages. We know that there are … over 60 languages spoken in Illinois,” Quiñones said. “Knowing that there’s limited capacity around phone operators, etc., we have asked to at least prioritize the top five, including Polish, as well as Arabic, Korean [and] others.”

The state’s request for hotline proposals shows an estimated start date of Feb. 25, but the state did not respond to questions about when the hotline will be up and running — just that the state is in the process of finalizing a deal to create one.

The city of Chicago referred WBEZ to its general COVID-19 hotline (which is not meant for vaccination appointments).

But on Tuesday the city announced the creation of a new multilingual hotline for people hoping to book an appointment at the new mass vaccination site the United Center.

To make an appointment at the United Center specifically, residents can call (312) 746-4835. For now, that number first directs you to the English-automated 311 menu. The state also notes the line will be staffed by just 200 people, so long wait times are likely.

Mariah Woelfel is a general assignment reporter at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter at @MariahWoelfel.