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COVID-19 Renews Interest in Training Pacific Language Medical Interpreters


Pacific Islanders in Hawai’i continue to see the disproportionate impact of COVID-19. They make up nearly 30 percent of the state’s coronavirus cases but only 4 percent of its population. For the thousands of Pacific Islanders who don’t speak English, access to health care during the pandemic has been largely dependent on access to a language interpreter.

Philios Uruman, a Chuukese language interpreter, says there are English terms that can be easily adapted to Chuukese like COVID-19 or coronavirus. But others such as isolation, quarantine, and sanitize require creativity in interpretation because the Chuukese language has no equivalent.

"Wearing a mask. If you said, 'Wear a mask,' in Chuukese, it would mean sunglasses, eyeglasses, goggles," explains Uruman. "So you have to say, 'Wear a mask to cover your nose and your mouth.'"

Uruman began interpreting in elementary school for his Chuukese-speaking parents after the family moved to English-speaking Hawai’i. He’s now part of a limited pool of Chuukese speakers in Hawai’i with formal training in medical interpretation – a crucial yet underutilized service.

"The number one problem that I see in many places, is when people come in, they say, 'Hi, what’s your name?' 'My name is so-and-so. How are you?' 'Oh, he speaks English, English is his first language. He does not need an interpreter.' No! Those people need an interpreter," said Uruman. 

The need for medical interpreters in Pacific Islander languages like Chuukese has grown over the past 10 years, says Barbara Tom, a retired public health nurse with the state health department.

"We all saw way back that this community needed language access, way back," said Tom.

In 2009, she partnered with Suzanne Zeng, then a professor at the University of Hawaii Center for Interpretation and Translation Studies to recruit Pacific Islander speakers to train in medical interpretation.

"What developed over the past 10 years was a national certification of medical interpreters. However, there was nothing in the Micronesian languages. So what happened is, with Barbara Tom, we developed a medical interpreter exam for Chuukese and Marshallese."

They trained more than a dozen medical interpreters before funding ran out a year and a half ago. But COVID-19 may have renewed Hawai’i’s interest in training Pacific language interpreters.

As for Uruman, ensuring language access is really safeguarding public health.

"It’s not okay, it’s not safe to assume that someone speaks English," says Uruman.

The Hawaii Department of Health has created a contact tracing team that will perform their duties in languages such as Samoan, Marshallese and Chuukese.

The new Pacific Islanders Outreach Team will comprise of 10 people who, along with their contact-tracing duties, will host online educational seminars about the coronavirus in a viewer's native language, according to KITV-TV Tuesday.

“I believe the more education the Pacific Islanders can get in a language and culture that speaks to them will help take down that number,” said Chantelle Matagi, the leader of the outreach team.

Matagi said that some people learn about the coronavirus for the first time during presentations in their native language.

“It’s taken away a lot of the fear, the misinformation, it’s addressed that," Matagi said. “It’s given them direct information on what to do if you’re positive, what to do if you’re a contact of someone who’s tested positive.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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