The COVID-19 hotline, one might say, is the sometimes invisible cog that keeps the massive COVID-19 response effort moving. The hotline has taken more than 250,000 calls since the beginning of the pandemic in March – an average of 655 calls a day – and that massive number won’t stop growing any time soon.
The heroes who direct public inquiries and concerns about the pandemic are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Their knowledge in the field of healthcare is not the only attribute contributing to their success – they find real joy dedicating themselves to keeping the public informed with the most accurate, current information available.
What most people don’t know is that the COVID-19 hotline is staffed and run by the Utah Poison Control Center. While the Utah Poison Control Center has assisted in other public health emergencies, nothing compares to the massive scale of the pandemic response. What was supposed to be a few months of helping the state of Utah manage the initial demand for information, has turned into nearly a year of helping Utahns, and people across the country, find the answers they need.
“The people on the hotline, they really care about the people who are calling. They want to do everything they can to get callers the best information and help people in Utah be safe.”Amber Johnson, Director of the Utah Poison Control Center
Johnson’s qualifications are nothing short of commendable. Prior to directing the state COVID-19 hotline, she supervised the specialists who answer thousands of poison emergency calls each year for the Utah Poison Control Center. She’s a pharmacist and a board-certified toxicologist, who has been with the COVID-19 hotline since its origin.
Hotline workers answer questions on everything you can imagine, from how long you should quarantine, to testing, and more recently on vaccine safety and availability. “Throughout the entire response, I think our number one question has been about testing. So where to get tested, who needs to get tested, what is the right time from an exposure to get tested… and then we’re also doing an increased number of questions about the vaccine right now. Any question that you can think about COVID-19, I think we’ve had it.”
Why call the hotline, instead of looking for answers from other resources online? “The information that we provide is from the Utah Department of Health and all of their resources, so we know that the information we’re providing is up-to-date and accurate. All of this same information is on their website at coronavirus.utah.gov. I think people call sometimes for convenience or just to talk to a live person. It’s comforting to talk to a real person when you’re scared or frustrated,” says Johnson. Hotline workers spend an average of nearly 5 minutes with each caller, answering questions and making sure they can get the resources they are looking for.
When you picture hotline responders, you might envision them working out of a call center. But the hotline exemplifies best COVID-19 safety practices; most hotline responders stay busy while answering calls from home.
“The majority of our hotline workers are, fortunately, able to work from home. Mondays are usually our busiest days, and then it sort of tapers off over the weekend. Day shifts are usually pretty nonstop; once you get done with a call, you write your notes and then another call comes in.”
As director of the COVID-19 hotline and the Utah Poison Control Center, Johnson’s typical day looks a little different than that of her co-workers.
“For me, my position is both over the Poison Control Center and the COVID-19 hotline, so my responsibilities are kind of mixed between the two. I’m also a clinical assistant professor at the College of Pharmacy here at the University of Utah, so I also have some teaching responsibilities. Kind of a mixture of making sure everyone on the Poison Control Center hotline is taken care of and making sure we’re fulfilling our duties at the college. Also, that the COVID-19 hotline is running smoothly, making sure I’m available to give them information that I’m getting from the Utah Department of Health, reviewing information that they’re collecting and making sure that we’re providing updates to the Utah Department of Health, so that they can tailor their messages based on information or questions that we’re receiving from the public.”
Saying that Johnson and the COVID-19 hotline response team have their hands full seems like an understatement. But their line of work, inevitably, leads to them assisting the public in unparalleled ways.
Says Johnson, “One of our supervisors said that her husband had a co-worker who had given us a call about their child. They didn’t necessarily have symptoms of COVID-19, but they were having symptoms that were worrisome, so we recommend they get tested. It ended up being that they had a pulmonary embolism, and not COVID-19. But it was something that they probably wouldn’t have taken him to the hospital for if we hadn’t recommended it. It was good that they were able to talk to someone and get triage to appropriate care.”
As the COVID-19 vaccines begin to be administered, hotline workers are able to utilize both their experience with the pandemic and their “normal” day jobs at the Poison Control Center. Callers or healthcare providers concerned about adverse side effects are transferred to poison specialists who help triage patient care and follow up if needed. Poison specialists are also able to provide help reporting adverse side effects to the CDC if the situation warrants it.
“I review all of our documentation of the calls that we get, and it seems like people that are calling are appreciative, and they’re thankful for the information. We get our handful of negative callers, and it’s understandable. People are frustrated and scared, and I feel like our team does a good job of trying to listen to people and helping them the best way that they can.”
With all of the ways that the COVID-19 and Poison Control Center hotline assists the public, it’s impossible not to feel gratitude. Their role in quelling the public’s fears with attentive care and informative responses is incomparable.
“The state of Utah owes a debt of gratitude to our friends and colleagues at the Utah Poison Control Center,” said Jenny Johnson, Public Information Officer at the Utah Department of Health, who oversees the information flow to the hotline from the health department. “When we asked them to help at the beginning of the pandemic – when we were so overwhelmed with calls – we had no idea the journey we’d take together over these past 10 months. They didn’t hesitate to take on this huge task and have far exceeded our expectations. The professionalism and medical expertise the team brings to the pandemic response is invaluable. I can’t thank them enough.”