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Vaccine registration system opens in Va. with minor setbacks, major language accessibility concerns

Vaccine registration system opens in Va. with minor setbacks, major language accessibility concerns

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Addressing "great frustration," Northam directs VDH to set up centralized vaccination portal

Virginians seeking to register for a COVID-19 vaccine can now do so through a statewide system that went live Tuesday.

While the portal, launched two months after the first COVID-19 vaccine was administered in Virginia, sputtered to a start at 8 a.m. when the site was slow or impossible to load, those problems were largely resolved by midday.

But issues remain, including syncing with CVS pharmacy registrations and other vaccinators to coordinate shots and limit the number of times a resident signs up for a vaccine.

Another: the system’s use of Google Translate, more than a month after the Virginia Department of Health website’s use of the service erroneously translated “the vaccine is not required” to “the vaccine is not necessary” in Spanish.

Until about 11 a.m., three hours after the centralized portal allowing Virginians to add their names to a long waiting list went live, there was no Spanish translation.

Eduardo Roncales spent his Tuesday morning helping a non-English-speaking woman navigate the state’s vaccine registration system.

When a Spanish version of the form was added, it was powered by Google Translate and returned a decipherable but faulty product.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Civil Rights Center advises not to use machine translation for vital documents without having a trained person review the messaging first, noting that “it is seldom, if ever, sufficient.”

Roncales, 66, had a Spanish copy of Richmond and Henrico County’s interest form on his phone to help speed up the process of registering the Chesterfield County woman with her local health district, which will contact users to schedule a dose once their turn arrives.

He has used the translated form to help Latinos in Chesterfield and the surrounding health districts that, according to Roncales, didn’t have an accurate Spanish translation like Richmond and Henrico.

Local health districts were instructed by the state to include links to the new registration system on their websites, replacing the old forms they were using, which means Richmond and Henrico’s form is no longer available.

State officials said Virginians who already registered for a COVID-19 vaccine through their local health district do not need to register again.

“I can tell you that the slowness is something we anticipated due to the volume of people we expected to try to visit the site. We encourage everyone to be patient, especially in the first few days,” said Virginia Department of General Services spokeswoman Dena Potter.

In a statement Tuesday night, Potter said technical delays with the Spanish version — which had been professionally translated and approved — would have stunted the ability to launch the system as scheduled.

Hours earlier in a separate response, Potter didn’t mention the difficulties and said that translation services would be “enhanced” in the coming days along with a call center Wednesday that will be able to handle more than 100 languages. Potter later said speaking with the team offered clarity on what happened.

“Spanish-speaking Virginians deserve the same immediate access to this system as English speakers,” Potter said. “So while working through technical challenges on the back-end, which we expect to be corrected soon, we used Google Translate as a temporary stop-gap.”

Google Translate doesn’t always work, Roncales said, but that’s the least of the problems.

“Every day, I search. I talk with whoever I can to get an answer on why Latinos cannot get information and why we cannot translate this information to our communities,” Roncales said. “There is no help. There is no communication.”

The VDH’s relying on Google Translate to serve its Spanish-speaking population has resulted in sharp criticism over how that can contribute to misinformation, which Roncales said is ongoing in Latino communities.

On Tuesday, the registration system’s using Google Translate meant “your first name” was translated to “nombre de pila.” The term is rarely used on Spanish forms, and refers to the name given to children upon baptism, or on the “baptismal font.”

Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, slammed the state agency’s reliance on the free automated service for vaccine information, calling its use “a clear lack of cultural competency at VDH when it comes to understanding how the Latinx community consumers information” in a media release Tuesday.

Guzman, who is running for the Democratic nomination to become lieutenant governor and is Peruvian American, asked the VDH a month ago to stop using Google Translate.

“We are getting sick at higher rates, we are hospitalized at higher rates, we are killed at higher rates. Spanish speakers are hungry for information about how to protect themselves and their communities,” Guzman said. “There are hundreds of thousands of Virginians who speak Spanish at home who rely on the Commonwealth to provide accurate information to them and their families.”

Guzman added that the VDH needs to diversify its workforce and said that “there are plenty of bilingual Virginians who are looking for jobs.”

On Twitter, Del. Ibrahim Samirah, D-Fairfax, said the use of Google Translate undermines confidence in the public health system and that “creating nonsense Google Translated vax-signup forms must end.”

The sign-up process itself, at least, was smooth, Roncales said.

Though system registrations will allow people to obtain a vaccine through the doses allocated to their health district, they will not connect Virginians to doses offered by certain employers — like hospitals — or through the federal partnership with CVS, which began offering doses to the public this month.

A spokesperson for Gov. Ralph Northam, Alena Yarmosky, said the state is pleading with federal officials and CVS leaders to link their doses to the state’s pre-registration system instead of running their own. Yarmosky said such a move would allow Virginians to sign up only once for a COVID-19 vaccine, and allow the state to better prioritize who gets a dose.

Christine Debany, a 71-year-old Midlothian resident, has registered on the local VDH site and at CVS, Walgreen’s, her local health care provider and any place that will take her information to make sure she’s in the running to receive a vaccine she’s eligible for.

Everything has been booked with no response, she said. But Tuesday offered a feeling she hasn’t felt in a while: relief.

“It’s better to know that we’re on the list,” Debany said.

Her 73-year-old husband, Michael, is recovering from back surgery, which makes traveling long distances nearly impossible and a nearby appointment necessary.

Debany only wishes she could know how long she had to wait, and whether the state will call or email. She isn’t always able to answer her phone or check her email.

Neither is Marie Giblin, 76, who lost power in the ice storm over the weekend and still doesn’t have internet access in her home off Staples Mill Road. Giblin planned to visit a nearby friend Tuesday night and take her computer along.

She’s already signed up, but has wanted to ensure the state has her name in the system. Until everybody gets the vaccine, she won’t stop wearing her mask, Giblin said.

“But I would like to be able to go to the store and not have to do pickup for everything,” Giblin continued.

The state’s new pre-registration portal can be accessed at

(804) 649-6103

Twitter: @sabrinaamorenoo

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