Interpreting in times of COVID-19

I’m a medical interpreter working primarily onsite, and as an independent contractor, I work with several local agencies. And just like with virtually all other jobs, mine has also been affected by COVID-19. 

My schedule has always been unpredictable, and along with last-minute requests, cancellations and patient no-shows were nothing unusual. However, starting in mid-March, just as the first stay-at-home order was issued in my state, there was nothing but cancellations and no shows. Then the appointments stopped coming.

Although one agency was still sending me requests, they were mostly at the local hospital where all the COVID-19 patients were being taken at the time. Every time I received a request, part of me wanted to take that job – after all, I still needed to make a living and this might be the only job I’d get that day. I also worried that, if nobody was going out there to interpret, patients would be left without adequate language access. On the other hand, I was wondering whether that 1-hour fee was worth the risk I was taking coming into the hospital when much was still unknown about the virus and universal mask wearing wasn’t yet adopted. 

This dilemma became even more pressing the following week. An agency called me, asking if I could take a last-minute appointment for an MRI scan at a local hospital. As I arrived at the hospital, I put on a cloth mask a friend had made for me and headed for my destination – which to my utter shock turned out to be the COVID-19 isolation unit. The nursing staff had to wear hazmat-style suits and helmets with air pumps to enter the patients’ room – and here I was in a hand-made flowery cloth mask. In the end, even though a nurse found a face shield and a surgical mask for me, I didn’t need them as the procedure was cancelled. This assignment brought up so many questions: How do I stay safe when I’m working? As a freelance interpreter, how do I make sure I have access to PPE such as masks? Is it irresponsible for me to keep taking onsite appointments and risk bringing the virus back to my family? What will happen if I get sick? And if neither I nor my fellow interpreters take that appointment, will the patient still receive interpreting services? 

Ultimately, I decided that as long as I was getting requests for my services, I would go out and interpret. Over April, May and June, as elective medical services were put on hold, and many local hospitals were switching to telephonic or remote interpreting, I was getting jobs mostly in cancer care.

As such appointments were taking place in outpatient settings and clinics were introducing universal mask wearing policies and providing masks to interpreters and visitors, I felt reasonably safe.

However, the new reality introduced new challenges: How do you socially distance yourself in a small exam room? How do you make yourself heard through a mask? What is a safe way to, for example, take a drink of water while out on assignments? There are no ready-made solutions, but luckily, interpreters are nothing if not resourceful and I have every confidence that, whatever life throws at us, we will find a way to keep interpreting!