A D.C. resident receives COVID-19 vaccine. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

When Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration launched its pre-registration portal for the COVID-19 vaccine March 10, it was only available in English. The government website that hosts vaccine information and links to the portal, vaccinate.dc.gov, can be translated into Amharic or Spanish using Google Translate, but the actual portal where D.C. residents and workers enter their personal information to be added to a list of people vying for a vaccine appointment is strictly in English. Even the button that hyperlinks to the registration portal cannot be translated via Google because it’s a graphic.

Assistant City Administrator Jay Melder told the D.C. Council Tuesday the pre-registration portal, along with the scheduling portal people gain access to once they’ve been notified to book an appointment, will be translated into six commonly spoken languages in roughly 10 days. Melder says DC Health and the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency will do the translation. He also highlighted a few recently published Spanish-language registration guides available on the government’s vaccine website. Spanish-speaking representatives, including staff from the Office on Latino Affairs and the mayor’s press secretary, also translate some coronavirus information on official and personal Twitter accounts. 

Weeks after the Office of the Chief Technology Officer rolled out the portal and days after DC Health told everyone eligible to pre-register, the new system will become accessible to non-English speakers. That the city launched a system without considering tens of thousands of immigrants comes as no surprise to language access advocates who’ve seen this happen with other government sites. The DC Benefits Portal got a Google Translate widget only after it launched, and the COVID-19 Housing Assistance Program is still only available in English. 

Advocates are deeply disappointed that these same communities have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. For some immigrants, the pandemic will be the first time they’ve sought public assistance. The experience so far could dissuade them from seeking help again, they argue. 

“They’re welcoming immigrants to the city, but at the same time you don’t see that equality in services,” says Veronica Hernandez, a program supervisor for Mary’s Center who helps non-English-speaking patients apply for government benefits. “They are not getting the same access as any other community.” 

“They never build something from the ground up that includes the immigrant community in D.C.,” says Allison Miles-Lee, a managing attorney with Bread for the City. Both she and Hernandez are members of the D.C. Language Access Coalition, a network of organizations that formed to ensure the Language Access Act of 2004 was actually implemented. “It’s always, always an afterthought that only comes when they’re pushed.” 

A DC Health spokesperson says they expect to launch the pre-registration system in Spanish, Chinese (Mandarin), Vietnamese, French, Amharic, and Korean by the end of March, if not sooner. Until they’re built out, the spokesperson says they are translating guides in five more languages and adding a Google Translate widget on the existing portal “in the days to come.” The focus since the March 10 launch has been to ensure that the new system functions properly, the spokesperson says, and as soon as it did, they started working to make it accessible to non-English speakers.  

“The translation of COVID-19 vaccine information and resources has been a top priority of DC Health throughout the public health emergency,” the spokesperson says.  

Some language access advocates would likely disagree. In mid-February, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1A filed formal complaints with the Office of Humans Rights against Bowser, DC Health, and HSEMA on behalf of their community for violating the Language Access Act of 2004. The law requires D.C. agencies to provide oral language services and written translations in any non-English language spoken by three percent or 500 individuals (whichever is less) of the population likely to be served. 

The complaint notes that not only was the first registration system inaccessible (just like the new one), but so are materials marketing the vaccine such as easy-to-read infographics that explain eligibility or how the vaccine works. ANC1A represents Columbia Heights, a neighborhood that has the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases citywide. The neighborhood also has a significant Latinx population. 

Bowser declined to comment on the complaints.      

Commissioner Christine Miller, who filed the complaint on behalf of ANC 1A, first noticed how inaccessible government resources can be in the early months of the pandemic. She learned from workers at the Family Place, a nonprofit that provides education and social support for newly arrived immigrants, that families did not know about free student meal and grocery distribution sites. Miller believes that’s because no one translated the information into Spanish. For the last 12 months, she and a number of advocates have been trying to get the Bowser administration to produce all coronavirus information—about testing, vaccination, and available aid—in commonly spoken languages.

“Before, for non-COVID-related things, when I have something that’s not translated, I can go to the language access coordinator [within any government agency] and say, ‘I need you to translate that.’ The end,” says Miller. “But what was happening with the COVID material is I would request it and I would kick it up the food chain, so to speak, and nothing would happen.” 

Miller speaks highly of the Office of Human Rights and Mayor’s Office on Latino Affairs, who often helped her translate government information in the past. But for whatever reason getting coronavirus material in Spanish proved extremely difficult. The bureaucratic process, slow-moving translations, and high stakes of this information all led her to file the complaints. 

After officials were notified of the complaints earlier this month, Miller noticed some infographics ANC1A flagged were translated, like ones about testing. People are sharing them in Spanish-speaking WhatsApp groups. However, infographics, like one about who D.C. is currently vaccinating, do not appear to be translated yet. 

Because the vaccine pre-registration system can be inaccessible to non-English speakers, employers and community-based organizations who work with immigrant communities have been translating materials and offering assistance in whatever way they can. The office of Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen created a printable form of the pre-registration questionnaire in Spanish, in part using DC Health’s Spanish guide. 

The hospitality industry employs thousands of workers who don’t speak English fluently, many of them coming from El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Thailand, and Ethiopia. Restaurant workers became eligible for the vaccine earlier this week based on their employment sector. They depend on the portal or call center to book appointments because there have been no special initiatives to get them vaccinated, as there was for teachers. It has been difficult for them to navigate the registration site in its current state. 

Immigrants, according to Call Your Mother and Timber Pizza Co. co-founder Andrew Dana, are not just the majority of the local restaurant industry, they’re the backbone of it. “These are essential workers,” he says. “They’ve been out and about the past year going to work every day. The least we can do is make their vaccine sign-up that much easier.” 

Restaurateurs like Dana have stepped up to provide as much language support to their employees as possible absent adequate materials from the city. “It’s not just that it’s not in their language,” he explains. Some don’t have email addresses or access to a computer. “Everything is new. Everything is scary.” 

He describes how he brought in a Spanish-speaking doctor a month and a half ago to talk to the team about the vaccine and “get them excited about it.” The growing restaurant group also hired a bilingual director of human resources from Ecuador. “She’s been instrumental in constantly translating everything,” Dana continues. “If someone had trouble signing on, we had lots and lots of hands to help.” 

Dana still hopes the city makes more information available in commonly spoken languages in D.C. as soon as possible. “It’s taken years for us to build up this level of trust with our staff,” he says. “They have to take our word for it because they can’t read the website. If they could research it and read about it on their own, they’d feel more comfortable.” 

Paul Carlson, a Spanish-speaking co-owner of Royal and Lulu’s Winegarden, has also done everything he can to help his employees register for the vaccine despite language obstacles. His family is from Colombia. “When [the vaccine pre-registration] opened last Wednesday, our Spanish speaking employees kept sending me screenshots,” he says. “What do I put here? What do I put here?” 

When Royal was ready to reopen in early June, Carlson says they created a COVID-19 handbook in English and Spanish that detailed topics like safety procedures, where to direct incoming deliveries, and how to interact with customers. They held a Zoom call with Spanish-speaking employees where they went through the handbook and took questions. 

The city should invest resources in translation, according to Carlson. “These workers hold jobs in industries that keep our economy afloat,” he says. “They should have access to the same information so we can keep our entire community healthy.”

Some restaurateurs have created their own unofficial guides to aid their employees. Muchas Gracias chef and owner Christian Irabién put together a sheet that he hopes will assist others. He translated information on some of the city’s infographics. It will soon be a part of the Mexican restaurant’s immigrant news resource page

Groups like the Children’s Law Center are also helping their clients navigate the pre-registration system. To promote health equity, the legal services provider decided to proactively reach out to their clients and provide them with information about pre-registration. Staff offer help to those who don’t speak English, given that the portal is inaccessible to them right now. While conducting outreach, a few clients expressed hesitancy about getting the vaccine.

Kathy Zeisel, a senior supervising attorney with the Children’s Law Center, wishes staff could just give clients the easy-to-read infographics created by DC Health—the ones that explain side effects and the ones that explain what vaccinated people can do—but they seem to be only in English. 

“We’re not medical providers,” Zeisel says. “We’re not going to talk to them about the vaccine. We just want to give them reliable information. And, if we can’t give it to them in their language, that’s a problem.”

She also wants the vaccine portal to affirmatively state that immigrants are welcome to get vaccinated and people working vaccine sites will not require documentation despite the portal currently stating “you must bring verification to your appointment.”

Veronica Hernandez, the program supervisor with Mary’s Center, finds most patients she’s helped apply for public benefits don’t even know about vaccinate.dc.gov until she tells them. “They’re not receiving that information,” she says. “So I think the agencies are not doing a good job in terms of reaching out or providing our communities that information. People that are not connected to a health care facility, they don’t even know what’s going on. It’s very sad.” 

Her small team, whose primary work is to enroll people in a health plan or cash or food assistance programs, has walked about 10 people, step-by-step, through the pre-registration process. Hernandez believes they would have pre-registered more individuals if the Latinx community had more information about the vaccine’s efficacy and safety. “Our communities are the ones that are going out of their houses to get something to put on the table,” she says. “Those are the people who don’t have that information, and they’re putting their families at risk.” 

Members of the D.C. Language Access Coalition noticed early in the pandemic that health guidance and restrictions were not always provided in commonly spoken languages. The lack of vaccine translations is the latest example of the Language Access Act not being enforced. 

Bread for the City’s Allison Miles-Lee, a member of the coalition, helped ANC1A file the complaints with the Office of Human Rights. But even if the office finds an agency is noncompliant following an investigation, the act has no teeth. “The Language Access Act is not really enforceable,” Miles-Lee says. “The only thing we have is like public shaming and guilting people into doing the right thing.” 

More from WCP