Recommendations on Health Precautions for Conference Interpreters during the COVID-19 Pandemic
Guidance from the AIIC Technical and Health Committee (THC) for interpreters accepting hub assignments
The COVID-19 outbreak, caused by the SARS-CoV2 virus, started last December 2019 in Wuhan, China, and rapidly spread to many other countries worldwide. On March 11, 2020, it was officially declared a pandemic by the WHO.
As of today, 11 June 2020, 7,273,958 cases have been confirmed and 413,372 people have died worldwide. Since this is a new virus, many aspects of the disease are still unknown, such as its infective viral load, mutation capabilities, actual survival time on various surfaces, and duration of the immunity in patients who recover from the disease. And of course, the host's susceptibility to the infection, i.e., his/her immune system status and comorbidities are also important factors. However, other aspects of the virus are already known, which has led to general recommendations and precautions being adopted universally: frequent handwashing with soap and water, maintaining physical distance with others of at least one meter, covering nose and mouth with a bent elbow when coughing or sneezing, avoid touching face and eyes, and wearing face masks in public places,. Quarantine and travel restrictions are known to be effective measures to decrease the rate of contagion, and have been adopted with variable severity and duration in most countries,.
Conference Interpreters and COVID-19
Conference interpreters have suffered several consequences since the beginning of the pandemic, importantly, a sudden cancellation of most of their assignments, with the resulting negative impact on their finances, but also the rise in the demand for RSI (remote simultaneous interpretation) in its various forms. Working from hubs is now becoming an option in countries were the lockdown has become less stringent and circulation is allowed (see AIIC’s documents published by the TFDI).
As such, we would like to make the following recommendations on health precautions for interpreters accepting hub assignments.
- Booths: The act of speaking generates oral fluid droplets that vary widely in size, and these droplets can harbor infectious virus particles. Recent laboratory studies have shown that transmission of Flügge’s droplets and microdroplets from person to person occurs with speech. Aerosols from infected persons may therefore pose an inhalation threat even at considerable distances and in enclosed spaces, particularly if there is poor ventilation. It seems therefore reasonable to recommend that in hubs, each interpreter is assigned an individual booth, as is the case already in certain organisations.
- Masks: Many countries have recommended the population to use masks in public places. However, in the specific case of conference interpreters working inside a booth, this would not be advisable, since it would imply rebreathing into the same mask for up to several hours, with the resulting increase in CO2 levels, plus moisture generation that would render the mask less effective and the added discomfort and interference with speech intelligibility.
- Gloves: The WHO does not recommend the use of gloves as a protective measure for COVID-19, since inadvertently touching one’s face or eyes would indeed pose a risk of contagion. Instead, the recommendation for interpreters following WHO guidelines is to thoroughly wash hands with soap and water or use an alcohol-based disinfectant before entering and after leaving the booth.
- General Health Recommendations: Like the general population, conference interpreters should follow their doctor’s indications regarding follow-up in case of coexisting conditions, such as hypertension, diabetes, cardiac and oncologic disorders, as well as the appropriate immunization schedule according to the regulations issued by local health authorities.
- Symptoms: Also like the general population, interpreters should seek medical care early if they have symptoms such as a fever, sore throat, cough, loss of the sense of smell or taste, difficulty breathing, or when they have been in close contact (less than 1 meter for more than 15 minutes, without a face mask) with a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19.
by Dr Gabriela Hecht, MD
We would like to thank Dr. Daniel Stecher, Head of the Infectious Diseases Division at the Hospital de Clínicas, Buenos Aires, Argentina, for his suggestions and careful review of this article.
 Coronavirus COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2). Paul G. Auwaerter, M.D. Updated: May 23, 2020 https://www.hopkinsguides.com/hopkins/view/Johns_Hopkins_ABX_Guide/540747/all/Coronavirus_COVID_19__SARS_CoV_2_