Amanda Wheeler-Kay has been a Spanish-English freelance interpreter in the Portland metro area for 15 years. Like most freelancers, she said it's not unusual for her schedule to look mostly blank a week or two out. But last month was different.
"By mid-March, I had a bunch of appointments that canceled," Wheeler-Kay said. "I'm now getting between five to 10 appointments a week as opposed to six a day."
She and other interpreters, who have been classified as non-essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, say the crisis has decimated their industry. Work that interpreters could usually count on from hospitals, schools and conferences has dried up, leaving them worried about their future — and the health of people who have the hardest time accessing American medical care.
Normally, most of Wheeler-Kay's interpreting work takes her to local medical centers and it's done face-to-face. But that stopped after Oregon Gov. Kate Brown ordered all non-emergency procedures, like elective surgeries and routine check-ups, to cease last month.
And that means the barriers to health care for patients who speak minimal English have become even higher.
"We know how hard it is for information to get out there," Wheeler-Kay said. "This whole crisis is making [it] so clear how social determinants really do have a significant impact on people's lives."
Interpreters play a vital role in the health care system, but many have been laid off entirely from their jobs.
This OPB story is shared as part of a local media project to increase COVID-19 news coverage.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.