Questions range from general tips to workplace safety
Fewer than 15 minutes after the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources opened its Coronavirus Hotline, the first caller dialed in. Since opening at 9:30 a.m. on March 9, hotline workers have fielded more than 11,700 calls — and counting.
“The most calls we’ve received in one day is 863,” said Dr. Elizabeth Scharman, professor of clinical pharmacy at the West Virginia University School of Pharmacy and director of the West Virginia Poison Center. The center, which also operates the West Virginia DHHR’s Coronavirus Hotline, is a service of WVU and is at the Charleston Division campus.
The WVPC, staffed by toxicology-trained WVU employees, serves each of the state’s 55 counties and is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The hotline staff is accustomed to handling a variety of calls, just not usually at this volume.
“On average, the Poison Center receives around 20,000 calls per year — just over 1,600 each month,” said Scharman. “The Coronavirus Hotline has surpassed half a normal year’s worth of calls within three weeks.”
After 9/11, an accessible public health hotline was made available to West Virginians as part of a maintained collaboration between the WVPC and the WV DHHR for Threat Preparedness. The WVPC tests the line monthly, and holds drills to ensure it works to capacity. Scharman anticipated the line would become more active as she saw the novel coronavirus 2019 spread from China to Europe and eventually into the United States.
Coronavirus calls have ranged from general questions about prevention tips to more specific ones such as the availability of tests, the need for testing and safety guidelines for their workplace. Callers include the general public, healthcare professionals, clinics, hospitals and other sources. For some, the hotline is more like a lifeline.
“Many people live in rural areas with a poor radio signal and no internet access, so we’re the place they come to for basic prevention information,” Scharman said. “The Coronavirus Hotline serves to fill that gap.”
Between seven and nine hotline personnel work each shift. Shifts run between 7 a.m.-3 p.m.; 3-11 p.m.; then 11 p.m.-7 a.m. The pharmacists, nurses, doctors and volunteers who work the hotline practice safety precautions like screening for illness, physically distancing themselves at least 6 feet apart, regular hand washing and desk cleaning. However, there is very little they can do to prepare psychologically.
“It’s really hard,” Scharman admitted. “We’re taking calls from people who need information, and some of them are scared, nervous and/or frustrated. Unfortunately, there are no good answers to some of the COVID-related needs people have. There are people quarantining alone with no support system; people trying to take care of children or elderly individuals; people without a job or healthcare and in need of services. It’s difficult to take call after call from people in bad situations.”
Scharman encourages the hotline crew to take regular breaks, to make sure they’re able to disconnect from the stress, if only for a few minutes. The workers also act as a support system for one another.
“You go home at the end of every day hoping that you made a difference, that in some way you’re helping people. It’s fulfilling, but it’s mentally exhausting,” Scharman said. “There’s a feeling that at least you’re able to help some people, but you feel bad for those you couldn’t help.”
Scharman encourages people to use the West Virginia Coronavirus Hotline for questions they may have and warns them to be cautious when reading information on social media about ways to treat or diagnose COVID-19 at home.
“People can risk their health by taking nonfood items and using them like they would a medication to treat or prevent COVID-19, or taking multiple quantities of over-the-counter products or herbs for the same reason,” Scharman said. “I don’t want to see people harm themselves. If you read something online, give us a call to verify it.”
Scharman notes that the WVPC Emergency Line is still open as well. It’s a separate phone line, so the calls do not interfere with one another.