Sainab Yussuf lives in Grand Forks, but when she wanted to get a COVID-19 vaccine last spring, she headed to East Grand Forks.

That, Yussuf said, is because she wasn’t sure where she could get vaccinated in Grand Forks.

“Nobody told me,” said Yussuf, who runs the Safari Market off Gateway Drive. Many of her customers have made the same trip across the Red River, she said, and they’ve often hitched a ride with Abdirisak Duale, the director of the New Americans Integration Center.

Duale said that some Grand Forks immigrants, mostly Somali, have been unsure where to go to get a COVID-19 vaccine because Grand Forks Public Health hasn’t adequately translated materials about vaccines or kept in touch with him and other immigrant leaders who can pass on information about clinic sites and so on.

It frustrates the normally mild-mannered Duale, who notes that many immigrants – often called “New Americans” in civic parlance – don’t speak English well.

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“Anyone who doesn’t speak English is unable to stay updated on the pandemic,” he told the Herald. “A lot of people when they ask me where we can get the vaccine, I don’t have the information for the Grand Forks side.”

So where’s the disconnect?

Lots of materials, few translations

At the mobile vaccination clinics they set up across the city this summer, Grand Forks Public Health staff were ready to hand out translated materials about vaccines.

“We hit every neighborhood,” Haley Bruhn, who heads the health department’s vaccination effort, said.

They also set up shop at other Grand Forks get-togethers, such as a community picnic hosted by the Global Friends Coalition and a celebration of World Refugee Day. That strategy, Bruhn noted, assumes that people are already present at the vaccine clinic.

Health department staff hung notes about COVID vaccines on doors throughout Grand Forks, including, with help from landlords, inside some secured apartment buildings. They dropped off fliers about vaccines at Hugo’s grocery stores for staff there to give to customers. And they produced a series of fliers that outlined the mobile vaccine clinic’s weekly schedule for staff at school lunch sites to hand to patrons there, too. They also publicized that weekly schedule online.

But the materials they distributed that way were not translated out of English, according to Tiffany Boespflug, a health promotion team leader at Grand Forks Public Health. She also said she wasn’t aware of any request to translate any of the health department’s promotional materials into another language.

Fliers did, however, have a QR code that would direct users to a city webpage with vaccine information – also written in English. A drop-down menu near the top of the page allows visitors to use a Google service to translate the page into several other languages, including Spanish and Arabic. The page doesn’t have a ready option to translate itself into Somali or Nepali – two of the more prominent languages spoken by Grand Forks-area immigrants – but city staff said users can change the settings on their web browsers to add those languages.

Similarly, the health department’s Facebook posts about its vaccination efforts stayed in English. Boespflug noted that the site sometimes offers users an option to generate a translated version of a given post into the language of their choice.

A flier in Somali advertising a July vaccine clinic put together by Polk County Public Health. Contributed / Abdirisak Duale.
A flier in Somali advertising a July vaccine clinic put together by Polk County Public Health. Contributed / Abdirisak Duale.

Rely on other organizations

Bruhn said the health department relied on other Grand Forks and North Dakota institutions, such as Global Friends and some faith-based organizations, to handle outreach.

“We know some of this work is already being addressed by other groups, so we don’t need to start duplicating it yet because we’re doing the things that those other groups can’t do,” Bruhn said. “The Office of Health Equity at the state can’t vaccinate 30,000 people at the Alerus Center, but they can work with those sub-populations and try to help them.”

Mayor Brandon Bochenski and other city staff also have convened regular meetings at Grand Forks City Hall with Duale and other leading figures in the “NFI” – “New American, Foreign-born, or Immigrant” – community. The aim of those meetings, according to Public Affairs Manager Greta Silewski, was to make sure residents’ concerns were forwarded to the right people.

Whenever city, county, and Altru Health System staff agreed to move Grand Forks County into the next phase of its tiered vaccination effort last spring, city administrators would have notices saying as much translated into Somali, Nepali, and a few languages, which they’d then send to Duale and other immigrant leaders for further distribution.

When vaccines were opened to the general public last spring, those same leaders and Bochenski announced it in multiple languages in a video produced by city staff. Some also recounted their reasons for receiving a vaccine.

At that time, vaccines were available through the city’s consolidated vaccination program at the Alerus Center, which required residents to sign up ahead of time by calling a phone number or by using Altru’s “MyChart” webpage. That page is also written in English and does not have a method to translate it. The hospital has translated some Facebook posts into Somali and other languages, according to spokesman Kenneth Harvey, and it offers free interpretation services.

“It would be nice if they would distribute fliers in Somali and put it out in our location,” Faisal Ali, who’s lived in Grand Forks since 2013, told the Herald via Mohamed Mohamed, the head of the East Grand Forks Islamic Center. “A good idea.”

Mohamed, who lives in East Grand Forks, was reluctant to speak about the state of Grand Forks’ outreach, but he lauded Polk County Public Health’s efforts.

“On my end, they’re doing an excellent job,” he said.

Polk County staff have commissioned translations for a host of COVID-19 materials, including advertisements for vaccine clinics, and they’ve had translators or interpreters present at those clinics. Those materials are also disseminated through organizations like Duale’s.

That effort, in Duale’s estimation, means Polk County Public Health has done a better job at that sort of outreach than their counterparts in Grand Forks. Seven Grand Forks residents headed to an East Grand Forks vaccine clinic last week, Duale claimed.

Staff at New Hope for Immigrants, an East Grand Forks-based nonprofit, have been putting together their own fliers in Somali and Arabic that spread the word about COVID-19 vaccines. They've since made a video that does the same in conjunction with Global Friends Coalition, according to Ilhaam Hassan, New Hope’s executive director.

Hassan also said she hasn’t herself heard of the difficulty that Duale has run into.

“Maybe back in May or April,” she said, “but not right now.”