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How Communities Are Breaking Down COVID-19 Vaccine Language Barriers

Older man receiving a COVID vaccine.

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Key Takeaways

  • Limited access to information about the COVID-19 vaccines, including how to sign up and where to go, creates barriers for people in underserved communities.
  • Language barriers are leading to a lack of reliable COVID-19 information.
  • Making translators available at vaccination sites and relying on trusted leaders in the community can help increase vaccine access.

The government is pivoting its vaccine distribution efforts from mass vaccination sites to reaching people where they are in order to increase access. One factor they'll have to address: language barriers.

People who don’t speak or read English are experiencing difficulties navigating vaccine appointment registration portals where there are no instructions in additional languages. General vaccine information also tends to get lost in translation.

In a plan to vaccinate 70% of the population by July 4, the Biden Administration will allocate $130 million to improving vaccine education and identifying barriers in underserved communities with low vaccination rates. But experts say that overcoming the language barrier will need to be a community effort—involving a collaboration between local community leaders, doctors, and families to increase vaccine access.

The Link Between Hesitancy and Lack of Information

Reports often point to the prevalence of vaccine hesitancy in BIPOC communities to explain low vaccination rates. But many of these fears and worries can be traced back to a lack of accessible information.

Alvin Cantero, MSN, DNP, the founder and CEO of Alvin Clinica Familiar in Houston, Texas, tells Verywell that the high levels of vaccine hesitancy and pandemic misinformation in the minority communities he works with can be attributed to a lack of access to appropriate COVID-19 information. He’s had patients ask him questions about whether the COVID-19 vaccines are inserting government tracking microchips into the body or if the shot will change their DNA.

“The hesitancy is mostly based on fears," Cantero says. "And those fears are validated through Google searches, even if they are not accurate.” But some fears aren't unfounded. Despite President Biden announcing ICE will not conduct immigration arrests near vaccination sites, many undocumented immigrants remain afraid of getting vaccinated for fear of deportation, according to Kaiser Health News.

Language barriers only exacerbate the situation, often leading to the spread of vaccine misinformation in vulnerable areas with limited access to healthcare.

How Language Barriers Factor In

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that language barriers play a major role in preventing non-English speakers from receiving quality healthcare—an issue only worsened by COVID-19. An April 2021 study in the British Journal of General Practice reported that people with non-English fluency experienced more of a language barrier and more trouble seeking medical care when all care went digital.

Language barriers can even be fatal if people aren't given accurate information or told what to do if they test positive for the virus. Cantero says that one Spanish-speaking patient who tested positive for COVID-19 continued working because her manager called her into work, ignoring the severity of the diagnosis. By the time she sought care at his clinic, her oxygen levels had plummeted, and she died seven days later.

Now, already at a disadvantage for COVID care, non-English speakers are struggling to sign up for vaccines on websites without translated pages. Cantero says the lack of bilingual staff members at vaccine sites who can talk individuals through the process can be frustrating—potentially discouraging other family members from getting a vaccine too.

What This Means For You

If you have limited English proficiency and are having trouble finding information about COVID-19 and the vaccines in your language, you can find trusted information here, translated to multiple different languages.

Translating the Information

Some hospitals and healthcare organizations are working to increase access by incorporating translators and providing information in multiple languages.

The Pannell Clinic in Sacramento distributes forms and displays signs in multiple languages. Volunteer translators for 12 different languages spanning from Chinese to Vietnamese are also available on-site, according to ABC10. Mecklenburg County Health Department is working with the Camino Community Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, to offer the vaccine at their locations. By housing vaccination sites in a familiar place for people in the area, they hope to increase the number of vaccinations in the primarily Hispanic community.

Ramon Tallaj, MD, chairman of the board of SOMOS Community Care in New York City, tells Verywell that SOMOS broadcasted messages on the radio and TV for non-English speakers, communicating the importance of getting vaccinated. Their website is also available in both English and Spanish, and interpreters of various dialects, including Spanish, Russian, and Mandarin Chinese, manage their telephone hotline.

Individuals who have basic computer skills and are proficient in English are also integral in helping overcome the language barrier during vaccine sign-ups.

Both experts say younger family members who are tech-savvy are stepping in to help older adults navigate the vaccine sign-up process. “The young generation, they are very fast with technology, and they can translate for people," Cantero says. "So that's another thing that helps to overcome the language barrier." Two high school sophomores even started the ‘New York Vaccine Angels,’ working to secure appointments for people who primarily speak Spanish or Chinese.

Trusted Leaders Can Help

Building confidence in the vaccines, and easing access barriers, requires the help of people who are seen as trustworthy in the local community. Tallaj says his organization works to connect people with family doctors who live in the same community as their patients.

“Doctors understand the problems in the community, the determinants of health that are important, and can address in their language,” Tallaj says. “It’s better for understanding how protecting you from disease extrapolates to vaccination.”

A Verywell survey found that people who know someone who has been vaccinated are more likely to agree to get the shot. Local community leaders who disclose they have been vaccinated or show their vaccination can help build public trust.

And it goes beyond government figures. People often listen to local YMCA leaders and pastors in churches who help explain information in their native language. “This is why we partner with churches and schools—because there is trust in the priests or whoever is in charge,” Tallaj says.

Cantero says he distributes flyers in different languages at his clinic depicting the vaccination process. By speaking with patients about his vaccination experience in their own language, he says he encourages them to seek help and ask questions. 

“When patients ask me if I got my vaccine, I tell them I got [the vaccine] last December as soon as it was available because I needed to see them,” Cantero says. “If I'm not in good health, there is no way I’m going to provide you health care, and I want to take care of you and your family.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. The White House. FACT SHEET: President Biden to Announce Goal to Administer at Least One Vaccine Shot to 70% of the U.S. Adult Population by July 4th. May 4, 2021.

  2. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Health Equity Considerations and Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups. Updated April 19, 2021.

  3. Knights F, Carter J, Deal A, et al. Impact of COVID-19 on Migrants’ Access to Primary Care and Implications for Vaccine Roll Out: A National Qualitative Study. British Journal of General Practice. doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/pubmed/fdaa282