The 211 emergency hotline operated by the Frederick County Mental Health Association (FCMHA) has been operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for more than 30 years.
But it had never seen as many calls as it has received this week.
Shannon Aleshire, chief executive officer of the FCMHA, said that each day, the call center is breaking its record of number of calls from the day before.
As of Thursday, the 211 hotline has experienced a 186 percent increase in calls since March 1. On March 1, there were no calls about the coronavirus. By Thursday, 40 percent of calls were about COVID-19, ranging from people asking for information to people expressing anxiety around the virus.
“Of course we can’t give medical advice, but we can certainly help people with the facts, where to find resources and provide supportive listening, because people are anxious, and rightly so,” Aleshire said.
Hotline workers are among those who have no “work from home” option during the pandemic. They must be in the call center, ready to help those in need.
Jack Markey, director of Frederick County Emergency Management, said that 911 call dispatchers are situated in workstations of four people, where each person is facing away from the center. This is how the call center always operates.
“We want to keep people from directly breathing on each other,” Markey said.
While 211 has seen a dramatic increase in calls, 911 has actually seen a decrease in the last few days. Markey said that it’s probably due to more people staying home.
Since January, the Division of Emergency Management has had a protocol-based, structured set of questions to ask people to see if they could potentially have the novel coronavirus. The dispatcher asked if the caller had a fever, if they were having trouble breathing, and if they had recently traveled, and if so where.
The travel question has had to change recently, as community transmission becomes more prevalent in Maryland and the rest of the nation. The screenings are coordinated with the Public Health Department and Emergency Medical Services to make notification to the hospital.
Markey said the same protocol was in place during the Ebola and H1N1 outbreaks, and worked well.
The 211 hotline workers receive calls about anything from helping people find food bank information to people who are contemplating suicide. Aleshire said that this time of year already leads to high volumes of calls, because spring is the time of year with the most suicides.
“People always think that suicide numbers go up in the winter, and that’s not true. They go up in the spring,” Aleshire said.
Because the call center workers are always in a high-stress job, the FCMHA provides an employee assistance program that the employees can use, as well as reaching out to their supervisors. Aleshire said that the FCMHA has also been trying to provide more self-care resources and activities in addition to snacks.
The Heartly House hotline has been operating 24/7 as usual. Since crisis workers are considered emergency personnel, they also cannot work from home. However, Heartly House is trying to find ways to reduce the number of staffers in the room at once.
Aleshire noted that the 211 call center is also doing its best to spread out workers and disinfect surfaces as much as possible.
The FCMHA also had to cancel its annual Catoctin Affair Gala, which was slated for May 9, due to the coronavirus. The gala is the association’s main fundraiser for the year to help support the call center.
Those who are interested in donating to the FCMHA can do so by visiting their website at fcmha.org.