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Barn. County COVID Helpline Busy; Preparing to Soon Take Vaccination Appointments

A new Barnstable County COVID-19 hotline has been busy since it started about a week ago. Volunteers handled about 1,000 calls on the first day, and have been averaging between 500 and 600 calls a day since.
County officials say the hotline will also double as a COVID vaccination appointment line once Phase 2 begins next week, though they say they don't have any details how and when the hotline will start accepting appointments.
CAI's Kathryn  Eident talked Bethany Traverse, a communications coordinator for the County Health Department during COVID-19, to understand how it all will work.
Eident What would you say is the top question or questions that you're hearing from people who call in?

Traverse Mostly we hear from the elderly population. They're usually 75 and up, they may or may not have comorbidities, and they're wondering how they can get the vaccine.

One of the difficulties with this process is that we can't really plan very far ahead. I always tell the callers that we're sort of standing at the edge of the cliff waiting to jump, but we need the vaccines before we can do that.

Eident You know, I sense that there's an anxiety here, right? People really want this vaccine and they want to be in the right place at the right time. And so, I was curious to know if people were frustrated with you, or if you heard it from anyone who's irate, or if you're just hearing from folks who just—any little bit of information helps.

Traverse Yeah, we sort of expected that there would be more frustration. We get more of that, I would say, on our Facebook page. But in terms of the phone calls, people are just really, you know, they're really grateful to have an ear to listen to them, an actual human. We don't get a lot of people who are irate.

And even if they are, we can usually diffuse that a little bit. We always tell them they can call us back if they feel like they are not getting the information soon enough, or they're feeling uneasy because they haven't heard anything.

It's a big process getting all this vaccine out. The state's working on it, we're working on it, the towns are working on it. All of the different entities are communicating on a daily basis. So, it's happening, it's just that anxiety is not going to subside.

Eident How many volunteers do you have on the hotline?

Traverse We have 20 volunteers that we've trained, Medical Reserve Corps. Most of them have clinical backgrounds; they're retired nurses, nurse practitioners, physicians, and they're amazing. They have so much expertise and they are really happy to donate their time to this effort.

It's been a daily occurrence that I have to send an email out to everyone and tell them I need anybody who is able to answer the phones to jump on right now, because they're ringing off the hook. We see them start to pile up in the voice mailbox, so we get volunteers in to start addressing the voice mailbox and make callbacks. It's a very busy effort.

Eident with the clinics that the county is operating this week, they filled up, I think, within hours. Does that mean that folks are in the Phase 1 group, are there are a lot of them left that may get pushed into this second phase where now, you know, you're trying to get to our real elderly population of seventy five and up right away? How does that work? Is that going to get even more complicated?

Traverse Well, I hope not. You know, they're going to do the Phase 2 rollout in a similar way that they did the Phase 1. So there are tiers. We hope to do another Phase1 clinic before the end of the month. And again, I can't give any details on that because we don't know what the details are.

The pharmacies received vaccine last week and even they are running out now. So, we can't do it all at once. We have to do it in an orderly, step by step fashion, because we don't want to cause chaos and confusion.

Eident We've talked about how the line may kind of also do double duty in a number of weeks to process folks, especially elderly folks who may not have access to the Internet, get their vaccine appointment. Do you have any concerns the helpline going to be overwhelmed?

Traverse We're going to put the call out to all full-time staff members at the county. You know, one of the joys of modern technology is that we all work through [Microsoft] Teams and this allows us to add anybody to the helpline. So, that would be our volunteers, or our full-time staff members, either from the health department or other departments. We'll get as many people on board for this as we need.

Eident Will there also be an online component for folks who don't want to sit on the phone, but just want to be able to register themselves when eligible?

Traverse Yes, all of the registration for the vaccines is through a state develop software called PredMod, and it's very easy to use, very straightforward. All of the state's vaccination registration is going to go through there. We'll be able to advertise all of the upcoming clinics through there, and through the state website.

So, yes, once we start performing these clinics for Phase 2, we'll have something right on our home page that directs people to the immunization registration page. For anybody else, they'll be able to call in to get assistance from the helpline.

Eident For those listening right now, what's your advice on when they should start calling or checking the website once we enter Phase 2?

Traverse I want to urge people to be patient. We don't know when the vaccine is coming in. We don't have a precise date or time, but we have people at the ready who are waiting to receive it and to get these clinics rolling. We're going to make sure we get everybody. Plans are already in place. You know, it might take time, but there are a lot of people involved in this effort, a lot of people that really care about this, about this community. And they're all working really hard every day, day in and day out, to make sure that this goes well.

Eident Well, Bethany, thanks so much for talking with us about the hotline and how Phase 2 might look on the Cape as it starts next week.

Traverse You're very welcome.

This transcript was lightly edited for grammar and clarity.