Extension hotline staff step up as 211 call volume spikes

It's been a challenging spring for ISU Extension and Outreach human sciences hotline staff, who provide answers and referrals for Iowans with a wide range of questions but lately have been swamped by coronavirus inquiries. The calls come more frequently and are more intense than usual, and colleagues aren't sitting nearby to serve as a sounding board or to pipe in with an uplifting word.

How to get help

Both 211 and Iowa Concern hotlines offer free, confidential help 24 hours a day. Reach Iowa Concern at 800-447-1985. Call 211, 800-304-0334 or 515-252-7858 for the 211 service. Access 211 services by email at 211@iastate.edu, by text message Monday-Friday (8 a.m.-8 p.m., text your zip code to 898211) or via the mobile app.

But the stress is worse on the other end of the line, which is why it's a fulfilling time to be helping, said Tammy Jacobs, hotline coordinator for Human Science Extension and Outreach. 

"There's a lot of fear and a lot of frustration. If we can help ease some of that burden, that's what we're there for. We're there to help Iowans become better Iowans. As long as we can keep doing that and helping them, it's all worth it," she said.

Calls increasing

The bulk of the increase in calls have been to 211, a nationwide three-digit hotline for finding local access to health care, mental health resources, food, employment, government help and other needs -- a one-stop shop for health and human services. State communications about the coronavirus in Iowa often have recommended calling 211 as a source for individualized help.

ISU Extension and Outreach is a partner in Iowa's 211 system, with full-time staff who answer calls for a 25-county region that extends northwest from Story County. The United Way organizations based in Des Moines, Omaha and the Quad Cities handle most of the other counties, with Wisconsin-based Gunderson Health Systems serving five counties in northeast Iowa. The extension call center also answers other hotlines, among them Iowa Concern (legal, financial, stress and crisis issues), AnswerLine (home and family issues), Teen Line (help for teens and those who care about them) and Healthy Families (health information for the entire family).

The role 211 is playing in the crisis is clear in the call volume. From March 8 to April 30, the extension call center took 6,749 calls, 89% of them to 211, Jacobs said. During that same time period in 2019, it took 2,435 calls, 55% to 211. The calls also are running longer -- about four minutes during that time period this year compared to three minutes last year, she said. To manage the increased workload, the size of the call center team has temporarily increased from four to 10, with four extension staff shifting from their regular duties to hotline work.

A reassuring presence

Jacobs said some callers just need to talk to someone who will listen, validate their concerns, reassure them and sort fact from fiction.

"A lot of callers right now don't know who to believe or who to trust. They don't know what information to look at. They're seeing all kinds of information on social media," she said. 

For COVID-19 health questions, hotline staff have scripts provided by the Iowa Department of Public Health to answer questions about common topics such as testing. They glean information from reputable sources to flesh out responses.

"We make sure that if it's something specific, it's accurate," Jacobs said.

Often, callers are referred to online resources, such as the assessment for qualifying for drive-thru coronavirus testing or online applications for unemployment insurance benefits. Hotline staff also maintain a database for providing callers detailed information on local resources, such as food banks and closed schools offering meal deliveries -- both which have been critical, Jacobs said.

"With all the children not eating breakfast and lunch at school, that's an additional burden on families," she said.

Just in time

Starting with extension's staff last summer and wrapping up in February, the extension and United Way call centers moved to a web-based phone system that allows their staffs to answer calls statewide and access local resources for out-of-region callers. That's helped even out the call load.

"We can jump in and help seamlessly," Jacobs said.

The web-based phone service, which replaced a system nearly three decades old, came along at an opportune time. It's also why hotline staff are able to work remotely.

Connecting virtually made the process of training temporary employees more efficient, Jacobs said.

"Rather than train four different times, I could train everybody at the same time. Zoom is one of my best friends right now," she said.

At first, Jacobs was concerned about how staff would handle not being able to bounce ideas off each other or be available to support each other easily. But with virtual tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, it's been smoother than she expected.

"It's almost like you're sitting there face-to-face with the person," she said.