© 2022 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Language Hinders St. Louis Immigrants From Registering For COVID-19 Vaccine

David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
Some immigrants in the St. Louis region are not pre-registering to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Advocates for immigrants say that’s because many registration sites are only in English and health officials have not provided enough information for people in their native languages.

People who work for organizations that help immigrants in the St. Louis region fear that many others are reluctant to get the vaccine. They worry that people who do not speak English won’t do so because of language access and a lack of information.

Sara Medrano contracted the coronavirus in November. She thinks she got it at the day care center where she works. Though Medrano’s health has improved, she’s unhappy that doctors can’t explain her lingering symptoms.

The lack of information makes Medrano skeptical about the COVID-19 vaccine. She also worries about its long-term effects and safety.

“A lot of doctors still don't explain why it happens or how this works,” said Medrano, a Mexican immigrant. “So how are you going to have a vaccine yet, you don't know how this virus works.”

People who work for organizations that help immigrants in the St. Louis region fear that many others are reluctant to get the vaccine. They worry that people who do not speak English won’t do so because of language barriers and a lack of information.

Advocates say some immigrants have not pre-registered for vaccinations because many registration sites are in English, there is a shortage of registration phone operators who speak other languages, and local health officials have not had information on the vaccine translated into other languages.

Many St. Lousians who do not speak English will not get the vaccine because they can’t read the registration information, said P. Ariel Burgess, vice president of client services at the International Institute of St. Louis.

“They have a lot of rumors that the vaccine is not good and that it's a government control issue,” Burgess said. “So, we really need to target this population, dispel those myths and rumors and also give them the information so that they can be vaccinated.”

To make sure immigrants are informed, the Immigrant Service Providers Network of St. Louis offers information about the vaccine on its website, which is translated into many languages, including Arabic, Bosnian, Chinese, Spanish and Swahili.

That will help immigrants who do not understand the process, said Julie Fox, chair of the network.

Fox said they often ask: “How do I register for it? And if I call this number, will I be able to talk to someone that speaks my language?”

“All those types of things come together and really make it difficult for immigrants and refugees to navigate the systems,” Fox said.

Dr. Christopher Prater, an Affinia Healthcare primary care physician who serves immigrants and refugees, said some of his patients have seen information about the vaccine, but because they lack literacy in their languages or have trouble reading in English, the vaccination message is lost.

“Because of the lack of English proficiency, sometimes there are those extra steps,” Prater said. “The extra steps would be that you may need to rely on a friend or family member, a trusted community member in an organization or your health care provider, and not all of those will be readily available, so the vaccine issue falls down the list and may or may not get addressed.”

Some unauthorized immigrants worry that if they show up to get the vaccine, federal immigration officials will be waiting to detain or arrest them outside vaccination sites, said Diego Abente, CEO of Casa de Salud, a clinic that primarily serves immigrants. The government announced last month it won't take any enforcement actions at or near vaccination sites.

“In the Hispanic community, getting on a list is the last thing you want to do, because it's a sign of potentially somebody misusing that information to ask questions and make you feel uncomfortable, which may put you, your family members, your loved ones at risk of deportation,” Abente said. “And that's a huge and hard decision to make. ‘Do I get on this list and risk it, or do I just continue to fly under the radar and risk getting really sick and potentially die?’”

Rosa Cruz is not worried about being deported because she is a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient. Last year, she thought she did not want the vaccine because she just did not know enough about it.

Last summer, she signed up to participate in the Pfizer vaccine trials, so she could learn more about the virus and potentially get the vaccine early. She received a placebo first but later got the vaccine.

Cruz said the trials and conversations with health experts helped her feel more comfortable with getting the shot.

Now that she is vaccinated, she plans to encourage others to get the vaccine and discuss the virus and the vaccine with her friends and family members who do not speak English to help calm their fears.

Follow Andrea on Twitter: @drebjournalist

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.