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For Many Immigrants, Language Access Is A Major Barrier To COVID Vaccination

Sarah Boden
90. 5 WESA
Tun Aye receives his COVID-19 vaccine from a UPMC provider at clinic held at Whitehall Presbyterian Church on April 24, 2021.

On a beautiful Saturday in April, members of Pittsburgh’s Nepali community drove and walked to the Whitehall Presbyterian Church to get vaccinated against COVID-19. The South Hills Family Center chose this site for the clinic because it’s easily reached by many of the area’s roughly 6,000 Nepali immigrants.

When patients arrive at the church they’re greeted by Nepali language medical interpreters, who ask if they have a preferred language. That language is written on a note card, which is then handed to UPMC staff, who gave the vaccinations. The clinic’s administration and funding is a partnership between the UPMC, the family center, and Jewish Family and Community Services.

South Hills Family Center does not provide health care. But the organization decided to host a vaccine clinic after it became clear that many Nepali speakers, and speakers of other languages like Karen, Burmese and Kinyarwanda, were waiting to be vaccinated.

“A lot of people coming here wouldn’t have the transportation to go to a Ride Aid in Cranberry like I did for myself,” said the center’s Casey Rich. “And going to an unfamiliar space where they’re not going to have interpreters available is just really scary. “

Despite logistical challenges, in some ways getting the vaccine to this particular community is a relatively easy lift. Rich said that many Pittsburgh Nepalis work in the medical field, where vaccination rates tend to be higher. When these individuals get vaccinated, it normalizes the vaccine for their friends and neighbors.

But hesitancy varies from one community to another.

“If you look at different immigrant communities, you see completely different behavior,” Kheir Mugwaneza of Allegheny Health Network’s Center for Inclusion Health.

Mugwaneza said that many anti-vaccine rumors his clients hear come from overseas. The social networks of immigrants are more likely to include people in countries where the vaccine has been scarce, making it less of a known quantity.

To combat distrust, Mugwaneza said it’s important to have accurate information delivered by respected community leaders in whatever language is most appropriate.

“We need to be patient, take time, educate them,” he said. “Then when they’re ready, they’ll take the vaccine.”

In addition to pernicious rumors about side effects, some undocumented people are hesitant to get vaccinated because they fear deportation when interacting with government officials.

“The vaccine to them is not important enough to have to put themselves in that dangerous situation,” said Monica Ruiz of Casa San Jose, a Latino immigrant resource center.

For that reason, Ruiz said people told her they didn’t go to Allegheny County’s vaccine clinic at the Castle Shannon Fire Department. In general, Ruiz said she's been disappointed in government efforts to help non-English speakers get vaccinated, citing both a lack of effort and poor execution.

For example, Spanish speakers in Pittsburgh come from many different countries including Guatemala, Colombia and Venezuela. Yet, often the information posted in Spanish on government websites is not written in a way that makes sense across these different dialects.

“There is a lot of medical terminology,” she said. “We’ve had to do things like use a lot of pictures, kind of use language that we know that the community that we serve can understand.”

Additionally, a number of Latinos in western Pennsylvania primarily speak indigenous languages, some of which lack certain medical terms.

“Sometimes in their original language there is no word for vaccine, or there is no word for doctor or therapist,” she said.

Like the clinic for the Nepali community, none of Casa’s vaccine work is being done with additional government funding. And the work continues: next month Ruiz is planning mobile vaccine clinics to serve agricultural workers in Lawrence County.

"I was speaking to somebody the other day who said, 'Well, wouldn't that be the [job of the] Department of Agriculture?' It probably should be the Department of Agriculture and not Cases San Jose," said Ruiz, "but that's not happening."

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio where she covered a range of issues, including the 2016 Iowa Caucuses.