Interpreting for the Coronavirus / COVID-19

by / Monday, 06 April 2020 / Published in Coronavirus, COVID-19, Interpreting, News

Q & A with Linda Golley

Do you have questions about interpreting and the Coronavirus/COVID-19? Submit your questions to and Linda will answer them!


Question: Many interpreters have asked about wearing masks. Can they or should they do so (facility permitting)? If so, should interpreters wear an N95 mask, are masks safe to use more than once and how do home-made masks fare to this topic?

Answer: As of the second week in April, we take a much more aggressively positive approach to interpreters wearing masks. The approach has several pieces:

First, the interpreter is a member of the care team, not a member of the public or of the family. Thus, the interpreter is exposed to a much higher load of virus by working in the healthcare environment during the pandemic than either the patient or the family. The interpreter should address the question of wearing a mask, and what type of mask, at the beginning of each assignment.

There may be a few onsite interpreting assignments for which the care team itself is not wearing a mask, but these will be fewer and fewer as non-urgent appointments are canceled. Because we do not yet have antibody testing, there is no way for anyone to know which patients, care team members, or interpreters have already had the virus and are thus not a danger. It is now clear that about 25% of people who have active virus infections and who are shedding virus into the environment are not feeling ill and are unaware that they are shedding the virus.

So the question for interpreters at this point, while on the job, is which mask to wear.

A simple paper or surgical mask, or a homemade mask, does two things: It catches droplets from another person from landing directly on the lower half of the interpreter’s face. (Reminder that the front of the mask is contaminated now! If the interpreter touches the front of the mask, his/her hands are contaminated!) Second, the mask catches droplets from the interpreter and prevents them from being sprayed out into the room. The inside of the mask is contaminated with the interpreter’s germs, if he/she is infected with anything. This type of mask does absolutely nothing to protect the interpreter from breathing in those virus particles which are not in droplet form and which are hanging in the air. If the patient is a known COVID-19 patient, this mask is NOT sufficient, and every member of the care team including the interpreter should be wearing either an N-95 respirator mask or a PAPR. Insist on it. If the patient is in ANY form of precautions, the mask of everyone who cares for him, including the interpreter, must be discarded upon leaving the room. If there is no indication that the patient has COVID-19, the mask may be worn back out into the larger setting and on to further patients. Remember that the outside of it is already contaminated as soon as the interpreter wears it in close contact with ANYONE. Physical distancing from everyone remains essential. Washing the mask and replacing paper masks at the end of the day is essential.


Question: should interpreters wear gloves while interpreting?

Answer: Gloves must be worn for any patient who is in precautions, of course. Gel before putting them on and after taking them off. But for patients who are not in precautions, it is more important to keep your hands bare but keep every single item you brought with you OFF of the surfaces and on your person and in your slim bag, so as not to allow any contact with the room. Gel hands in every compartment: gel coming into the hospital, gel entering the waiting room, gel going into the exam or treatment area, gel going back out of each compartment. In other words, do not just gel in and out once per patient. You might follow a patient across many different compartments, and the chairs and check-in desks and clipboards and doorknobs in each compartment have droplets all over them.

Do NOT wear gloves from one compartment to another, because you will spread germs from one compartment to another while thinking you are safe yourself.

It is fine to ask the care team in each assignment whether to wear gloves. Be prepared for them to say no because you are not going to touch the patient.

Hospital Employee & Freelance Interpreting. Is there a danger?

Question: I work in a hospital. It is said that my work might get more positive COVID-19 patients in the next 2 weeks. My department has not had a positive case yet, but if we do get someone, would you recommend I keep interpreting?

Answer: Thank you for your work. I remember back in the 1980s when AIDS roared into epidemic proportions in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I was working in a primary care practice. This is the point at which you decide and affirm that you are a health worker above all, or not. My choice was to continue to work with patients and to learn how to keep them and our care team as safe as possible and preserve patients’ dignity at the same time…

Our immigrant patients are experiencing huge barriers to care during the pandemic. They need all of us to hang in there with them.

Linda Golley is an experienced trainer of WA medical interpreters. She is the Manager of Interpreter Services at UWMC, a commissioner for CCHI, a web content adviser for NCIHC Home for Trainers webinar series, and presents nationally on Infection Control and Industrial Safety for Medical Interpreters. She has collaborated with Spokane International Translation since 2016.