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Calhoun EMA, 211 open new COVID-19 information call center

Call Center Scene

Evan Ontiveros operates his station at the call center. The Calhoun County EMA has set up a call center in its building to field calls related to the county concerns of the COVID-19 situation. 

After facing waves of calls about the coronavirus this month, emergency officials have opened a call center through Alabama 211 to respond to pandemic concerns. 

Calhoun County residents can dial 211, and after entering their ZIP code, they’ll be transferred to the county’s new COVID-19 Resource Center, with staff trained to answer questions about COVID-19. The call center is in Jacksonville at the Emergency Operations Center, which also houses the county 911 facility and the Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency, the hub of the county’s Infectious Disease Task Force

According to EMA director Michael Barton, the 211 service had a surge in its usual call volume in recent weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic, and other county agencies had been swarmed with calls, too. The new service not only funnels that call volume somewhere it can be managed, but opens a new line of communication with the public. 

“We had the idea through the task force to open up a one-stop shop; it serves as a clearinghouse for people,” Barton said by phone Wednesday morning. “‘How do I get tested, what are the symptoms, where is the testing located at, I don’t have a physician of my own, who should I go to,’ all those kinds of things, we’ve got folks who can help talk them through that.”

The local 211 service is offered through United Way of East Central Alabama. Shannon Jenkins, president and CEO of the local United Way, said the call center had received three times its normal call volume in recent weeks as viral fears took hold. 

“It has taken a lot of the load off of our 211 call center, so they’re able to answer more calls based on their expertise,” Jenkins said. “Our 211 specialists will continue to direct folks to the right places to get help with food and utility assistance and emergency prescription assistance and things like that, but it gives them the ability to be transferred directly to the joint information center.”

The center — which currently has 16 staff members working in four-person shifts from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday — had a “soft open” Tuesday, Barton said. The staff is comprised of city and county employees whose regular duties had been suspended during recent stages of the pandemic, who are now trained to use 211’s resource database and give out COVID-19 information. 

Staff and hours might both expand if demand continues to climb, something Barton said is likely, but a plan is in place for those expansions if they’re needed. There’s also discussion of adding a telemedicine element to the service, if local physicians who have that technology decide to participate. Including a telemedicine component — that is, doctor visits over the phone or internet — might hold off trips to hospitals and doctors’ offices. 

“It could help cut down the demand of people presenting at medical facilities,” Barton said. “The whole social distancing idea is, if you don’t have to get out, don’t.” 

Assistant Metro Editor Ben Nunnally: 256-235-3560.