The Wait For A COVID-19 Vaccine Could Be Even Longer For People Who Don’t Speak English

COVID-19 vaccination appointments sign
In this file photo from Dec. 17, 2020, a COVID-19 vaccination appointments sign points the way at Edward Hospital in west suburban Naperville. Faced with a potential delay in getting their Spanish-speaking parents vaccinated in Will County, WBEZ reporter María Inés Zamudio and her sister, Edith, sprung to action. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press
COVID-19 vaccination appointments sign
In this file photo from Dec. 17, 2020, a COVID-19 vaccination appointments sign points the way at Edward Hospital in west suburban Naperville. Faced with a potential delay in getting their Spanish-speaking parents vaccinated in Will County, WBEZ reporter María Inés Zamudio and her sister, Edith, sprung to action. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press

The Wait For A COVID-19 Vaccine Could Be Even Longer For People Who Don’t Speak English

I learned how to be a reporter from the hundreds of hours I’ve spent translating for my parents.

Do a lot of research. Ask a lot of questions.

Those skills came in handy this year as I tried to get my parents the COVID-19 vaccine. Last month, seniors in Illinois became eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. I know that getting an appointment to get the vaccine is hard because there aren’t enough vaccines for everyone.

My mom and I call each other almost every day. And for the last three months, she’s been really anxious to know when it is her turn to get the vaccine. My mom is 73 and has comorbidities that can turn COVID-19 deadly. She’s been terrified of getting the virus.

In Will County, where my parents live, I learned that seniors who want the vaccine have to register online. I filled out forms for each of them. But with each passing day that we didn’t hear back, my mom grew more anxious.

So I started making some calls.

I called the Will County Health Department. But I got nowhere. And the longer I was on hold, especially when I heard the operator say, “If you would like help filling out the COVID-19 vaccine information form online, call the Will County Senior Center,” I couldn’t stop thinking about my mom and other non-English speaking seniors without access to the internet.

I wrote down the number and called the center to see if they offered help to Spanish-speaking seniors. A woman there told me it could take up to two weeks for a volunteer interpreter to call back and help the senior fill out the form online. That’s the best they can do, she said.

Thinking as a reporter, I figure that these types of barriers are creating further delays for non-English speakers. So I called Will County Health Department spokesman Steve Brandy.

Brandy told me they are doing the best they can.

“When the government made that change to 65 and over,” Brandy explained. “That meant a lot more people were going to be signed up for [group] 1B. Over 125,000 people have registered with their information.”

Brandy said the county is working as fast as it can to accommodate seniors. He said the system to help Spanish speakers works. But he said he didn’t know about the two-week wait to hear back from a volunteer interpreter.

It’s a delay that will contribute to the unequal distribution of the vaccine.

The Latino population in the suburbs has increased over the last two decades. In Will County, for example, the Latino population has grown from roughly 44,000 to nearly 120,000 since 2000, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Spanish is spoken in one of every nine Will County households, and about 5,400 households there have limited English proficiency.

Maria Zamudio poses with her mother
Here I am with my mom as she proudly displays her naturalization certificate in 2013. Becoming a U.S. citizen was one of her dreams after she came to this country more than 26 years ago. Courtesy of the Zamudio family

More than 20,000 Will County residents have been fully vaccinated, according to data from the Illinois Department of Public Health. Among the roughly 18,000 people vaccinated whose race or ethnicity is known, about 12% were Latino, according to the state data. However, more than 17% of Will County’s population is Latino, according to the most recent census data.

“I understand people are anxious but this will take months to get done,” Brandy said. “What we are doing, as quickly as we can, is getting people in here for appointments. It’s by appointment.”

He suggested residents go to their primary care doctors. But vaccines, of course, are limited, so nothing is guaranteed.

As for my parents, my sister, Edith, and I decided we couldn’t wait for the Will County Health Department to call us. So we got to work. We called multiple places and tracked down leads until we found a way.

On Monday, my sister took our parents to get their first doses of the vaccine. My mom was elated.

“Lo logre,” I made it, she told me after she got the first dose of the vaccine. Since the pandemic started, she’s told me many times that she’s terrified that COVID-19 will kill her. Getting the vaccine made her feel lucky.

My sister told me that she felt the same relief after. She drove for hours through a blizzard to make sure they made it to their appointment.

“While the pandemic is still very present, the vaccine offers a sigh of relief for now,” Edith later told me.

I realize that if my mom didn’t have us, she would still be waiting for the Will County volunteer to call her just to add her name to a long waiting list.

María Inés Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.