Answering the call: Working a coronavirus hotline
Multiple states have been bombarded with thousands of calls a day.
In a time of so much uncertainty, no one has all the answers, but COVID-19 hotlines across the country have assembled to try to answer some of the thousands of questions Americans are pondering right now.
While hotlines cannot provide clinical advice as a doctor can, the staff can still answer questions regarding novel coronavirus testing, symptoms and prevention.
Some, but not all, state health departments have set up their own hotlines, while a number of hospitals are also fielding calls from local communities. A federal hotline has yet to be created and it is unclear if one is in the works.
Thousands of calls come in to these hotlines every day. Florida’s emergency operations center told ABC News their hotline received over 130,000 calls from March 18 to March 29.
Michigan, a state with over 14,000 positive cases, has also set up a remote hotline call center to keep up with the amount of daily calls. Michigan’s hotline told ABC News they answered almost 97,000 calls from March 24 to April 2.
Hotlines create greater "equity of information," Chris Jackson, the state assistant administrator with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), told ABC News. "Not everybody has access to the internet. Whether they're low income or seniors who might not be comfortable with the internet, or even here in Michigan, [with] rural populations that may not have internet but [they do] have access to the phone."
"I have been so overwhelmed by the dedication of all of our state employees who have stepped forward to staff that hotline seven days a week," Sarah Esty, Michigan DHHS senior deputy for policy and planning, told ABC News. "Many of them have kids at home, have family members they are caring for, have regular day jobs with DHHS that they are juggling alongside stepping up to be trained and answer questions coming in from residents across the state."
In Chicago, a group of medical students from Loyola University took it upon themselves to help staff the Loyola Medical Center's COVID-19 hotline. While not fully licensed physicians, they had medical knowledge and no way to use it due to following the CDC's social distancing guidelines. So they began volunteering at Loyola’s call center and answering questions based on constantly changing CDC information and Loyola medical center’s instructions.
"We had young and old people crying just out of fear on the phone," said Eda Akyar, a third-year medical student at Stritch School of Medicine and one of the hotline’s student leaders. "Having someone to speak to at Loyola Medical Center really helped calm some people down and put into perspective the things you need to do to keep yourself healthy in this very stressful time."
What to know about coronavirus:
- How it started and how to protect yourself: Coronavirus explained
- What to do if you have symptoms: Coronavirus symptoms
- Tracking the spread in the U.S. and worldwide: Coronavirus map
One Loyola medical student volunteering on the hotline, Richie Green, a fourth year Stritch student, says one of the calls that stood out came from a woman who had recently been hospitalized because of a chronic condition that put her at higher risk for COVID-19.
She called Loyola’s hotline seeking a test, and Green acted as a "goalkeeper," Akyar described, directing the caller to a nurse who ultimately determined she was eligible. The woman’s next step would be to get a COVID-19 test at a Loyola facility prepared to receive such patients, Akyar said, and wait for her results. In this way, the hotline is attempting to help cut down on the number of people unnecessarily physically waiting in the hospital for testing information, Akyar added.
"It’s hard because you're using your clinical judgment, but you can't give them advice," Green explained. "All I did was really just listen to her ... I validated her fears because it is a scary thing."
After reassuring the caller, Greens says she responded by saying, "You know, my mother in heaven must have connected me with you today."
"[It] amazed me and kind of made me laugh because I did not feel like I did very much except to educate her on what I knew about the disease ... and listen to her," Green said. "It made a difference."
For the Loyola medical students, staffing the hotline was a way to contribute to the health care system, which is each of their ultimate life goals.
"I know our system is being really overloaded right now," Green said. "I want to get into the fight and I want to help out."
If you would like to speak to a hotline representative about possible COVID-19 symptoms, whether you qualify for testing, or preventive measures, search online for your state’s health department or local hospital’s website.
Annie Krall, a Northwestern University Masters of Science in journalism graduate, is a contributor to the ABC News Medical and Business Units.