The struggle to find information on coronavirus is even harder in Spanish

Health offices in Hillsborough and Pinellas are working to offer translation by phone. Meantime, nonprofits are holding community meetings.
Ana Lamb with the League of United Latin American Citizens hears concerns about coronavirus during a meeting with a Spanish-speaking audience of about 25 people Wednesday at a north Tampa restaurant.
Ana Lamb with the League of United Latin American Citizens hears concerns about coronavirus during a meeting with a Spanish-speaking audience of about 25 people Wednesday at a north Tampa restaurant. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]
Published March 6, 2020|Updated March 9, 2020

Coronavirus cases have been confirmed in the Tampa Bay area. For the latest news on the outbreak, go to our coronavirus page, which we are updating regularly. You also can sign up for our DayStarter newsletter to have the day’s news sent right to your inbox each morning for free.

• • •

Click here to read this story in Spanish

TAMPA — Officials advise calling the Health Department or your doctor if you suspect you have coronavirus.

But as a state of emergency enters its second week in Florida, it’s still not so easy if you speak only Spanish. Government agencies broadly recognize the need to translate their messages into Spanish, but Health Department offices were struggling to adapt this philosophy to the growing health concern.

A call to the 24-hour state Health Department number in Hillsborough on Thursday was answered with a recording in English that offered coronavirus information at the punch of a button and an option to hear a menu in Spanish. But there was no mention of coronavirus on the Spanish menu.

For those who struggled through the English prompts, a Spanish speaker did come on the line. The number is (813) 307-8000.

“I’m told the prompts were recorded and should have gone live yesterday when the system was updated," spokesman Kevin Watler said Friday. “Our technology team is looking into it to see what may be going on.”

A call to the Pinellas office Thursday quickly produced a human operator, but no Spanish speaker was immediately available and it wasn’t clear when and how often they would be. Twenty-four hours a day, the Pinellas website says, but only 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., according to an operator.

Margarita Hall, spokeswoman in Pinellas, said Friday that Spanish-speaking staff members would be available any time to those who call the local line, (727) 824-6900. The office is referring some callers to the state Health Department call center at (866) 779-6121.

In Pasco County, the message was a consistent if limited one: The (727) 619-0300 hotline is available 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.

One local Hispanic community activist said she’d like to see more attention given to Spanish language options.

“It’s a difficult process to get service in Spanish, but the fact is that we need more resources in real time," said Ana Lamb, president of the local council of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

An October 2015 Census report helps show what’s at stake: Of the 237,000 people identified as Spanish speakers in Hillsborough County, 94,000 speak English less than “very well.”

Meantime, the league and other advocacy groups are working to fill the gap in Spanish-language information, in part through community meetings and partnerships with local government.

On Wednesday, about 25 people attended a meeting Lamb held in Spanish at Brunchies restaurant in north Tampa to air concerns and learn more about the coronavirus. Among myths that the organizers worked to dispel: The disease is a death sentence.

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter

We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every morning.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

“The worst thing we can do now is to be stressful and think that we are going to get sick tomorrow," Lamb told the audience. “No, it’s not like that. We have to be responsible, yes, but we also have to continue with our lives.”

Angélica Delgado, 40, a wife and mother of three who attended the meeting, said she has been taking advice from friends and family members to disinfect doorknobs and countertops more often.

“For most of us this is something very new," said Delgado, a Mexican native without health insurance. "We are facing an unknown disease. But you have to follow those recommendations because nobody wants to get sick at home and none of us wants to end up in a hospital.”

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor has appeared on Hispanic television urging people to follow Health Department recommendations. Castor took the opportunity to publicize the city’s emergency text service, available in Spanish by texting TAMPALISTA to 888-777.

Information on coronoavirus also is available in Spanish at the Hillsborough County website, said Eli Capote Rodriguez, the county’s Hispanic liaison. The office is working with nonprofits like Enterprising Latinas and the Latino Coalition to provide Spanish speakers with up-to-date advice.

“We’re sending them information constantly because it’s changing every day," Rodriguez said. “But essentially the message is: Please don’t panic, wash your hands very well with soap and water.”

• • •

Tampa Bay Times coronavirus guide

Q&A: The latest and all your questions answered.

PROTECT YOURSELF: Household cleaners can kill the virus on most surfaces, including your phone screen.

BE PREPARED: Guidelines for essentials to keep in your home should you have to stay inside.

FACE MASKS: They offer some protection, but studies debate their effectiveness.

WORKPLACE RISK: A list of five things employers could be doing to help curb the spread of the disease.

READER BEWARE: Look out for bad information as false claims are spreading online.

We’re working hard to bring you the latest news on coronavirus in Florida. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.