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For Non-English Speakers, Getting Vaccine Information Is A Challenge

Josie Shaw, a Swahili interpreter in Clive, Iowa, makes short videos to share with refugees that has information about COVID-19. She says she's trying to combat misinformation spread through social media.
Natalie Krebs
Side Effects Public Media
Josie Shaw, a Swahili interpreter in Clive, Iowa, makes short videos to share with refugees that has information about COVID-19. She says she's trying to combat misinformation spread through social media.

The Midwest is home to tens of thousands of immigrants — including refugees from countries like Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Iraq. And it’s been a challenge to provide information about COVID-19 and vaccines to those who don’t speak English.

The Johnson County Public Health Department in eastern Iowa has COVID-19 information available in about a half -dozen languages.

But Samuel Jarvis, who works for the department, says getting this translated information out during the pandemic can be really hard.

"Because the information changes quickly. And really, it has to be at a faster pace," he says.

The department has three employees who produce videos in Arabic, French and Spanish. It also provides flyers in languages like Swahili and Mandarin Chinese.

Despite their best efforts, Jarvis isn’t sure these resources are getting to the people who need them. "It's hard to know, what's actually reaching folks ... is it billboards, maybe, maybe not. Is it radio ads, maybe, maybe not."

But reliable information is needed to combat all of the rumors and half-truths about COVID. Especially when there’s a push to get people vaccinated.

"A lot of news are in different languages or ... we don't know where this source comes from is one of the reasons confusing our community," says Abigail Sui, the family focus program director with the Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center.

The center has postedinformational videos on its Facebook page since the start of the pandemic. They cover a wide range of topics — from vaccine information to getting the most recent stimulus check — in nine foreign languages.

The need for such resource is great. Refugees and other Immigrants have been hard hit by the pandemic. They make up a significant chunk of the workforce at the Midwest’s meat-packing plants, where COVID outbreaks have affected thousands of workers.

Some Midwestern states have made an effort to reach out to non-English speakers.

In Iowa, residents can use Google translate on the state’s coronavirus website and 211 operators are equipped with a translation service. In Missouri, health officials have partnered with the Mexican consulate to provide Spanish translations on Facebook live events with vaccine information.

But some say this isn’t enough.

"There's a trust factor, where they are thinking like, ‘Okay, who is telling us this? And why are they telling us this?’ So it has to — the source has to be known," Josie Shaw says.

She's a native of Kenya who lives in Polk County, Iowa’s most populous county, and has worked as a Swahili interpreter for 15 years.

Shaw says even when there is translated information, people don’t always know where to find it. Plus, many refugees she works with don’t feel comfortable contacting government agencies, so translation services may be useless.

That’s why Shaw creates informational videos on COVID-19 for WhatsApp groups with Swahili-speaking refugees.

Otherwise, they’ll share misinformation they find on social media. "They'll take that video, and just like I'm doing, they'll give it to everybody and their mama that they know. And they'll tell each other, ‘This is why you shouldn't take the vaccine.'"

In January, Polk County launched a Train the Trainer program that uses leaders like Shaw to better reach refugees and other immigrants. It’s another way to fill information gaps about COVID.

The county has trained about 20 leaders so far, and plans to continue the program even after the pandemic ends.

Natalie Krebs is a reporter for Side Effects Public Media and a health reporter for Iowa Public Radio in Des Moines. She can be reached at