Carmen Velasco, left, relies on her neighbor Meredith Wardlaw Rodríguez, right, to translate COVID-19 public health information. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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When the school year started this fall, the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled in-person classes for Carmen Velasco’s four-year-old son, who was set to begin early childhood education in St. Paul through Head Start.

But within a few weeks, Head Start called to tell her it would soon be reopening with smaller classroom sizes. They asked Velasco if she still wanted a spot for her son. 

Velasco, who is 40 and is originally from Mexico, didn’t know how to respond. She didn’t want her son to lose the Head Start spot, but didn’t know if it was safe for him to enroll. 

She sought out Meredith Wardlaw Rodríguez, a good friend and neighbor who also lives in St. Paul. Wardlaw Rodriguez quickly sent Velasco a web link to the state’s updated infection and death numbers. 

“It was in English,” said Velasco, who describes her English as limited. “I asked her for Spanish, and she said, ‘Yes, of course!’” 

After combing through the Minnesota Department of Health website, Wardlaw Rodríguez couldn’t find updated infection information in Spanish. So she did what she’s been doing for several people within her circle of friends: She translated the information for Velasco.

In the weeks since, Velasco said she’s struggled to find up-to-date infection numbers in her first language to help her make routine decisions like when to shop for groceries in person. Each time, she’s gone back to Wardlaw Rodríguez for help. 

“When I can’t find it, I ask Meredith, ‘How is the virus now—how are the numbers?’” Velasco said. “She gives me the information: the number of cases, deaths, Latino numbers, how it’s affecting Latino children.” 

The lack of easily available public health information in Spanish, Velasco said, is heartbreaking for local Latinos, who are being infected with COVID-19 at the highest rate of all communities in Minnesota. As of Wednesday, Latinos accounted for 11 percent of COVID-19 infections in the state to date, more than twice their share of the total state population (5 percent). 

“What about all of those Latinos who don’t speak English and don’t have a Meredith to help them?” Velasco said. “It’s sad.” 

‘By the time it’s translated, it might be obsolete’

It’s not that the state isn’t providing some public health material in Spanish. A look at the Minnesota Department of Health’s Spanish-language COVID-19 web page shows general information on how the virus is transmitted and recommendations on how to properly wear a mask and wash hands. It also links to information in Spanish for upcoming free COVID-19 testing events—something Wardlow Rodríguez said she noticed the website started adding a few weeks ago. 

But much of the linked material on the page is also dated from several months ago, and updated virus infection or death numbers don’t appear in Spanish.

Rodolfo Gutierrez is executive director of Hispanic Advocacy and Community Empowerment Through Research (HACER-MN), one of several community organizations that MDH is working with on disseminating information. Gutierrez said it’s been very difficult getting public health notices out to local Latino communities. 

This is partly because it can take MDH hours or even days to officially translate new COVID-19 material, he said. Also, many Latinos, especially in rural areas, don’t have the time or resources to find up-to-date information easily. 

“People are having difficulties in accessing the information once it is generated,” he said. “And by the time it’s translated, it might be obsolete, or we might need different information.” 

The situation can leave people like Wardlaw Rodríguez as de facto translators for friends and family, something she said is unfortunate. 

“Families are completely out of the loop,” Wardlaw Rodríguez said. “It’s an informational desert from the appropriate public health agencies—from the state to the counties to the cities. You’re trying to find a simple flyer that’s translated into another language, and they either don’t exist or they’ve been hidden somewhere.” 

Spokespeople from MDH did not respond to Sahan Journal’s questions before press time. 

Sara Hollie, an administrator for racial and health equity at Ramsey County, said at least two staff members from the county’s public health response team have been translating COVID-19 material into Spanish. The County is also contracting with organizations like the Spanish-language radio station La Raza and Communidades Latinas Unidos En Servicio (CLUES) to share COVID-19 information. 

Hollie said no “one-size-fits-all” way exists to get public health information out to Spanish speakers and added that the county is aware of the community’s difficulties in accessing information. 

“This is something that we’re recognizing, that we know, and that we’re trying to be intentional about,” she said. 

‘They’re half-assing it’

For now, Wardlaw Rodríguez, 34, said she’s routinely translating COVID-19 material for at least three of her friends. And because her son is enrolled in Early Childhood and Family Education, she periodically translates fliers for things like free testing events to roughly 100 other ECFE parents in a What’s App chat group. 

Martha Higuera and Raquel Barrientos, two other parents in the ECFE chat group, also recently found themselves translating information about the virus for friends and family. Usually, Higuera’s work amounts to texting a flier to a free testing event and typing the information in Spanish below. 

Higuera said she is particularly worried about how the lack of health information in Spanish is causing misinformation about the virus to spread within the community. 

Earlier this year, one of Higuera’s friends was told to get a COVID-19 test after an outbreak at the workplace. Higuera helped her friend, who was asymptomatic, find a place to get a test. 

“She tested positive but said, ‘No, I think the results are wrong,’” Higuera said. 

Higuera said she knows multiple people like this who tested positive but didn’t believe their results.

For Barrientos, constantly sifting through virus information to update her friends and family has left her in a state of fatigue.

“It’s just very overwhelming,” Barrientos said. “It’s intense, it’s not fun, and it’s really depressing when you think about how deep the ramifications go.” 

While all three praised the state and county’s partnerships with Latino-led organizations like La Raza, they said these practices can go only so far. La Raza, for example, reaches much of the Twin Cities’ Mexican American community. But it receives less attention from people like Wardlaw Rodríguez’s husband, who is Nicaraguan. 

“My husband doesn’t listen to música norteña, because he’s not Mexican,” Wardlaw Rodríguez said. “So with relying on La Raza, you’re just making an assumption about the Latino community — that because there’s a Spanish-language radio station, everybody is going to be listening to it.”

Barrientos said public health agencies should also work on their own to build a presence and trust with the community.

“They’re using something that’s already established, which is great, but that’s it,” Barrientos added. “They’re half-assing it.”

Hollie said Ramsey County is working to bolster direct engagement with Latinos by seeking community feedback and hearing recommendations from its “equity action circle,” which includes two Latino members. The county is also considering a new position dedicated to helping the Latino community access and navigate COVID-19 resources. 

To date, Ramsey County helped sponsor four free COVID-19 testing events aimed at the Latino community that have resulted in more than 1,000 tests taken. It will continue helping the Mexican Consulate’s office in St. Paul offer free testing every other Wednesday from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. starting November 18 through December 16. 

Relying on Google Translate instead

Despite these efforts, Wardlaw Rodríguez characterized at least one recent action from the county as tone deaf. In October, Ramsey County sponsored a free mask distribution event. When one of Wardlaw Rodríguez’s friends asked on Twitter why the county didn’t have information for the event in Spanish, the county’s official Twitter account tweeted back to “consider using Google Translate or Bing Translator” to navigate the web page for the event in another language. 

A quick follow through of that recommendation illustrates the pitfalls of relying on Google Translate. Most of the time, the page mistranslates “mask” to “máscara,” a Spanish word usually used to describe makeup or a costume mask, instead of “mascarilla,” the correct word for a surgical mask. 

Ramsey County spokesperson John Siqveland apologized for offending anyone with the post in an email to Sahan Journal. He noted that the county does advise Google Translate “and like tools” for areas of the website that aren’t already translated, “although we recognize this is an imperfect solution.”

The county also offers translation services through a hotline at (651) 266-8500.

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...