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44 Hours in a COVID-19 Call Center #coronavirus #storytelling

The good news is I didn’t spend a straight 44 hours in the call center; just five and a half consecutive eight-hour days. So, despite my previous pity party, it all worked out well … eventually.

[For those of you new to my blog, I work in the public health sector and was recently commandeered to take calls at a center for general information about the coronavirus. Lest you think that is an easy-peasy assignment, I’m a highly sensitive introvert who avoids loud noises and crowded environments … so, yeah, a call center is kind of my worst nightmare.]

My first day I took only five calls, and some might argue that was a win. So few calls should mean that my time at the call center would be cut short. Eh, we were just getting started, folks, and we were getting plenty of calls. The problem was all the phones (twenty in total) would ring at once but only one person could take that call. It felt like a competition–who can pick up the handset the fastest–and I found myself at times actually cradling the handset in my palm just so I could get at least one more call. Somewhat ironic since I loathe talking on the phone, but then something happened during that first day.

About thirty years ago, I volunteered for a battered women’s shelter and one of my duties was to work the hotline. I received extensive training for this because, you know, violence and suicide were usually big topics in these calls. As a young teenager, I had availed myself of hotlines, trying to work through dark periods of angst and fatalism that I couldn’t share with my family. I understood how the disembodied voice of a stranger could be a lifeline. During my first day at the center, my old hotline skills started to kick in.

Also, I hate feeling useless, more than I loathe talking on the phone. When I came back to the call center the following day, I was resolved to figure out a way to take more calls and maybe actually help someone. We got into a rhythm of sorts. Five staff were reassigned to answer emails which made it easier to pick up more calls. Plus, we were getting more calls. Tuesday and Wednesday I logged about 25 and 37 calls, respectively. Thursday and Friday I logged in the high 50s.

By late Thursday, they set up an “agent routing” system for all the phones. Only one phone would ring at a time, and the incoming calls would be distributed so if my phone rang, it was for me and me only. I probably took the same number of calls, but it was definitely less stressful since I no longer needed to have quick reflexes.

I listened to all kinds of stories and I share some of them in this essay on Medium: Life Stories from a COVID-19 Call Center. As the confirmed cases of coronavirus rose in Florida, the calls became more predictable: either healthcare workers wanting to know the protocol should any of their patients need to be tested, or people reciting their symptoms to us as if we were a “Call a Doc” service. Toward the end of the week, it was obvious that Florida wasn’t doing a good job of communicating, particularly to healthcare providers.

The state also failed in providing translation services. I lost a few calls because I could not speak Spanish and the caller could not speak English. The only Spanish speakers in our group were usually already taking calls, and we had no guidance on how to handle non-English speakers. The Florida population is over 25% Hispanic and we also have large Haitian communities as well so we could expect French and Creole speakers. No excuse, Florida, for dropping that ball. It wasn’t until late Thursday that a language translation line was established.

In my Medium essay, I note that one call in particular haunts me: A young woman who could barely stop coughing long enough to tell me her symptoms, who had recently traveled to Italy, and who had no doctor or health insurance. I didn’t waste time with small talk and quickly gave her the number of her local county health department’s epidemiologist. I was left to wonder if she called them, if she had been able to call and get help. In hindsight, I wish I had taken her phone number and followed up myself with the county health department.

Hindsight is amazing, isn’t it? I have a whole list of things that should have been done before the call center was even open. I don’t fault the emergency team that worked with us. Their orders were being given on a day-by-day, sometimes an hour-by-hour basis, by leaders with little to no experience in responding to an infectious disease outbreak. The team did the best they could. By the morning of the second day the call center was staying open to 8 pm; by that afternoon, it was changed to midnight. By Thursday, we were told the call center would be open 24/7. I don’t know who took those shifts past 5 pm. I just know it wasn’t me.

Nature is always my balm during stressful times. After a week at the call center, I decided to visit a park for a quick trail walk on my way home. My husband and I had regularly walked at this park years ago, but I eventually changed my commute home and rarely drove by it any more.

I was happy to see the park is being well-maintained with so many grand old trees. Aside from the iris (?), all was varying shades of green and brown with a splash of gold from the setting sun. I worked an afternoon shift on Saturday and went to the park again, getting the same lift in my spirits.

When in Nature, I do a lot of reflecting. Besides that young woman whose painful coughs still ring in my ears, I think about the loneliness I also sensed. Some people called not because they were sick or had recently traveled to Asia or Europe or even knew someone who might be at risk. Some people called just because they wanted to talk and they wanted someone to listen. Some callers had a cure for the virus, some were armchair infectious disease specialists and had insights they wanted me to pass along, and some were simply scared. One woman cried as she said, “I’m in my golden years and I feel like my life is falling apart.”

Unlike the flu which is fairly predictable in who it affects and how and for how long, the coronavirus is so far unpredictable. It is more contagious than the flu (a person with the flu will infect 1.2 people whereas someone with the coronavirus can infect 2.2 people), but we understand little else about it. What we do know is that it is deadly for the elderly and people with underlying health conditions. While I’m not worried about what the virus might do to me if I became infected, I would worry about infecting others and for that alone, I’m trying to take as many precautions as I can.

I hope you all will do the same.

Thank you for reading this far. As your reward, here’s a photo of Maxine. She’s our oldest kitty (16 years old), but I think she looks like a kitten here. She’s not a happy girl as she never likes visiting the vet. We were happy, though, because her UTI appears to have cleared up … for now.

Categories: life

Tagged as:

Marie A Bailey

Writer, blogger, knitter, cat lover, and introvert.

30 replies

  1. I loved your Medium essay, Marie. It drove home that it’s so easy to tune out strangers and not consider what other people might be going through. Also how fragile we all are at times like this.

    As for Nature (capital N), she never lets us down.


  2. Thank you for this and the bit of peace you offer by way of distraction or comfort.

    However, am I right in thinking that “a person with the flu will infect 1.2 people whereas someone with the coronavirus can infect 2.2 people” is somewhat misleading? A single person with the flu might infect a dozen other people, but on average the spread is to 1.2 people. This is called R0 (R-nought), and I had not heard that the R0 for covid-19 was only 2.2. I have read higher numbers (3.4), but you are in the industry. I am relieved to read that even though it’s bad it’s not as bad as some early estimates.


    1. Thanks, Jan. I should have quoted or cited my source, but the article was referring to R0. Although 2.2 doesn’t sound as bad as 3.4, as you note it’s bad enough, especially when you start multiplying. It sounds conservative to me given the sweep of the virus in Italy, Seattle, but I’m not an epidemiologist and I don’t believe any number (such as 2.2) is yet definitive. Still too much we don’t know.


  3. I read your Medium essay yesterday. I’m glad you were able to add a sympathetic ear, as well as advice. I can imagine that you’re affected by the calls and callers, but I’m glad you got to enjoy nature and your cats. Maxine is beautiful!


    1. Thank you, Merril! If I helped any one person, it was worth it. I should have mentioned one gentleman said I was “awesome.” That made my day 🙂 And, yes, our cats are a good antidote too. We think Max is beautiful too 😉


  4. First of all, so happy Maxine is feeling better.
    I will go read your essay on Medium!
    I had no idea you were doing this call center business. Wow! That is important work these days!!! Please stay healthy, Marie!


    1. You stay healthy too, Luanne. Just refuse to hug the gardener until he disinfects 😉 (I read your post but didn’t have time to comment.) More shifts at the call center might happen if our confirmed cases continue to increase.


  5. Maxine does indeed look like a kitten!
    Wow! Great essay! I need to direct some people to it who have had questions about the virus.
    How wonderful that you provided a listening ear in a frightening time.


  6. “I’m a highly sensitive introvert who avoids loud noises and crowded environments … so, yeah, a call center is kind of my worst nightmare.” LOL! Mine too, Marie. Thank you for what you’re doing.


    1. LOL, Jill! I forgot to mention that I quickly learned to take my hearing aids out during calls. The ambient noise would be muffled and I could hear the caller better too. Being hard of hearing has its advantages, I guess 😉


            1. I survived. Only had to be in the call center for the morning, but initially they had scheduled me for Friday and Saturday. Long story, but you know I’ll write about it 🙂


  7. Marie, thanks for sharing your experiences in the call center. BTW, glad you thought to remove those hearing aids. Our country and so many states are ill-prepared for this now designated pandemic. Give Maxine my congratulations on her UTI being much better.


    1. Thank you, Sherrey! As I’m going back to the call center today, I’m looking forward to removing my hearing aids 😉 I completely agree with you that our countries are unprepared for this.


  8. That was such an interesting post about your experiences in the call centre. I can imagine it must be quite wearying emotionally but it’s great that you do it. We are all going through a period of deep unease over this and people like you help us cope with it. Bless you 🙂


  9. Bless you Marie, and all ‘health care workers’…but you especially – call centers are tough, but fill a huge gap in liasoning (is that a word?) between the community and ‘someone who cares’.


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