Carmen Velasco, pictured here in November 2020, gave up on registering for the state's COVID-19 Vaccine Connector after she found the English-only questions too complex. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Carmen Velasco wants to get the COVID-19 vaccine, but she has no idea when she’ll be eligible and where she will be able to get it. So when the state recently launched a new online tool designed to do exactly that—tell Minnesota residents when they’re eligible and where they can get vaccinated—Velasco jumped at the opportunity to sign up.

If only it were that simple. 

When she went to the website to register, she clicked the hyperlink that read “Spanish”—her first and most comfortable language. Rather than taking her to a Spanish translation of the questionnaire, the website sent her to a page explaining what the questionnaire was. Then it brought her back to the same questionnaire, once again in English. 

With no alternatives, Velasco attempted to fill out the form in English. While doing so, she came across questions too complex for her to comfortably answer. She was also taken aback by some of the more personal questions, like her sexual orientation and pre-existing health conditions. 

“They even ask you if you are hard hearing or deaf, or if you have mental disabilities,” she said. 

Now, Velasco, 40, is back to square one, not knowing when and where she’ll get vaccinated. Several health officials, educators, and advocates worry that she’s not alone. Tom Cytron-Hysom, a facilitator who teaches adult literacy courses with the St. Paul Community Literacy Consortium, is one of them.  The state’s vaccine portal is not tailored for people with limited English or limited digital literacy skills, he said. 

“This is kind of for middle class professionals who are fairly well-educated people,” Cytron-Hysom said after reviewing the website. “If you aren’t in that class, it’s going to be really hard.” 

At a news conference Thursday, state officials said they were aware of accessibility issues with the vaccine connector. Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said her department’s work to make the connector more approachable for people who aren’t digitally savvy or comfortable filling out the form in English is “ongoing.” Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan added that the state is in the process of translating the connector in more languages.

“Efforts on that are happening right now,” Flanagan said, “and the ongoing feedback that we get from the community will help us continue to update it and change it.”

Still, neither Malcolm or Flanagan could give a timeline for when such translations will be available.

Meredith Rodriguez, a friend of Velasco’s, helped several Spanish-speaking friends access COVID-19 free tests last year by translating public health material for them. She said she hasn’t really been doing the same for the connector. It’s much harder and more painstaking of a process to walk people through, unlike translating a flier for an upcoming free testing event, she said. 

Rodriguez added that using people’s email addresses to update them on when they’re eligible to get a shot is not the best way to notify the Latino community in Minnesota. 

All of which is unfortunate, Rodriguez said, because so many people in her community are eager to get the vaccine. 

“Carmen is interested. My husband is interested,” she said. “I know vaccine hesitancy is a thing, but there are a lot of people who are interested in getting vaccinated.” 

‘How come we didn’t see it before?’

Among Cytron-Hysom’s main criticisms is that the portal appears to be thrown together at the last minute.

“It looks to be like it was put together very quickly and wasn’t tested with anyone,” he said. “I would test it with a control group first.” 

Some criticize the state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Connector for including a kapcha and asking complexly-worded and personal questions. State officials say the questions are meant to account for equity. Credit: Collage by Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

That is one of the issues that Cytron-Hysom’s colleague, Adriana Galván, brought up in a task force meeting giving feedback to the state about the vaccine connector. She said the task force, the Latino Community Advisory Committee, met with Health Department staffers the night before the connector went live. 

“One thing we asked is, ‘How come we didn’t see it before, so we can give feedback before you throw it out there,’” Galván said. 

Galván said she doesn’t believe the state is operating in bad faith, but that its moves prioritize speed over equity. “I think there’s pressure to get the vaccine going,” she said.

Her committee is meeting with MDH officials twice a week, she said, and the officials are supposed to bring their feedback to the IT people who developed the vaccine connector. 

Another recommendation: Make the questions less complicated. For example, Galván noted that the Latino category under race and ethnicity includes several different Central and South American countries. The box should simply include “Latino,” she said. 

“They need to know if I’m from El Salvador or Puerto Rico?” she asked. “We get it, it is about data in pursuit of equity, but people who sign up for a vaccine don’t know why they’re asking.” 

Many immigrants and refugees don’t trust the government, she said, and questions about health conditions and sexuality can compound the distrust. Add in skepticism over the vaccine itself from some, and you’re in for a messy situation. 

“If the process gets sloppy, it might impact the credibility of the vaccine,” Galván said. 

Flanagan spoke about these concerns at the Thursday news conference.

“One of the reasons we ask for that information over the connector is to ensure that we can see where there are gaps in those particular communities that we need to target with outreach,” Flanagan said. “But this whole system may be updated.”

Flanagan also pointed to a state hotline that Spanish, Hmong, and Somali speakers can call for help to fill out the connector. In the meantime, some people like Galván have taken on that role for themself. Galván estimated that she’s helped 17 people sign up for the connector since it launched.

To date, state officials say more than 400,000 Minnesotans have registered on the vaccine connector—a number they cite as a success. But the state has not released data breaking down registered people by race and ethnicity. 

Malcolm emphasized that the vaccine connector isn’t the only way for people to find out if and how they can get vaccinated. Among the efforts both she and Flanagan cited were the Health Department’s own COVID-19 Community Coordinators and the state’s partnerships with 30 community media organizations to connect people of color with vaccines. 

In the meantime, Rodriguez said she feels like the state leaders haven’t learned much from last year’s frustrations over a lack of Spanish language public health information on the virus.

“I thought there was an acknowledgement and recognition that practices would change,” she said. “I feel like we’re back to the same conversation we were having last fall.”

Rodriguez probably is helping at least one friend register on the portal. On a recent evening, Velasco texted her. “This vaccine page is totally crazy,” Velasco wrote. “I will need your help tomorrow.”

Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...