In 2019, during my master’s in public health studies at the University of Minnesota, I started a position as a student worker at the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH). I was in the Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Prevention and Control division (IDEPC).
My daily routine consisted of organizing and entering data from clinical lab reports and following up with clinics for any missing information. It was hard to get selected for a position here, and while I was excited to get the first-hand experience in a renowned department of health, the work itself was often monotonous.
However, come February 2020, the rhythm at work started changing. COVID-19 had entered the US, and Minnesota was preparing for when it would arrive here. IDEPC was one of the first divisions to get involved with working on the COVID-19 response. In the first week of March, employees in IDEPC, including all the student workers, started getting trained to staff hotlines, to be prepared to answer health- and precautions-related questions regarding COVID-19 from the general public with reference to MDH recommendations.
The hotlines were set up in small conference rooms able to seat six people at a time, each with a landline in front of them. There were 4-hour shifts planned throughout the day that employees could sign up for.
I went into my first shift with apprehension about what was to come; some of my usual work involved making phone calls to clinics and laboratories to enquire about testing results, and being an introvert, I did not especially enjoy that. The first few hours of the shift were quite slow, and I watched and learned from some of my seasoned colleagues answering calls.
But it just so happened that my first day on the hotline shift, March 6, was also the day when the first case of COVID-19 was detected in Minnesota. Sometime after this was announced in the news, landlines began ringing off their hooks, and it was my turn to answer some calls.
People mostly wanted to know where the positively-diagnosed person resided and where they had been in the past few days. However, we had instructions to not reveal this information to protect their personal identity. Many callers were not pleased to hear that.
Over the next few days, the public hotline transitioned from this conference room of six people per shift to a classroom with about 20 people per shift. Two people, usually full-time epidemiologists from within the division, would be available at the front of the classroom to assist with any difficult calls and to relay new testing or press release information to the rest of us, so we knew what to inform our callers.
There were snacks and handouts of the latest guidelines and updates printed and available for us to read before beginning our hotline shifts. We also had to keep a tally of how many calls were answered. Even with the increased capacity and each of us picking up calls consecutively without a break, we would at times not be able to handle the volume of calls.
I made sure to read the news and CDC and MDH guidelines every day to ensure I gave callers the correct information and recommendations in response to their specific queries. I listened and responded to the queries of Minnesotans from all walks of life, trying to adjust to the new reality imposed by the pandemic.
Elderly people who lived alone asked if it was okay to meet up with their friends to play cards; parents of college students returning from other states asked about where to put them in quarantine; people who had recently returned from travel abroad asked what symptoms to look out for; conscientious factory workers complained about their administration not taking cleaning and disinfecting guidelines seriously.
Some callers spoke in fury and others out of sheer gratitude. Sometimes people would call just to vent their frustrations, and all I could do was to give them a listening ear and try my best to make them feel understood. Sometimes, they would have suggestions for what MDH must tell the media or how we could better handle controlling the spread. I would tell them that I would pass on their views to my supervisors who were in decision-making positions, and record what was said on my notes sheet so that the supervisors who read it at the end of the day would see it.
Some queries would be outside the scope of MDH, and we would provide them with the phone numbers of other government departments or organizations that could answer their questions. It was also interesting to note how the levels of concern differed between callers. Some people would have healthcare backgrounds themselves and ask critical questions about the state’s approach to testing and social distancing policies.
Some people could hardly pronounce ‘coronavirus’ and were just content to know if and how they could carry out their daily activities like grocery shopping and going to the liquor store. Here and there, I would get some moments of humor when I greeted incoming calls, and they would reply, asking “Hello, is this the coronavirus?” (forgetting to add ‘hotline’ in the end)
There are a few calls I shall never forget. A father called to ask if it was alright to send his daughter to another state for a custody hearing. At the end of the call, he took down my name, probably so that he could cite me for the recommendation I provided on behalf of MDH. Such were the calls that reminded me that I wasn’t just representing and relaying MDH recommendations to these people, but that I was also accountable for the information I gave them based on their specific situation so that they could make a sound decision.
I was on another call for 45 minutes with a person who reported that she had depression and was very upset that one of her favorite museums had shut down. From exchanges with my colleagues, I learned that this person had called multiple times and been answered by different staff members regarding the same grievance.
I did not receive any more calls from this person during my shifts. However, I saw the challenge of our roles as hotline responders—to strike a balance between empathizing and providing the caller with resources for her mental health and making sure we weren’t spending so much time on such calls that we couldn’t attend to other callers’ concerns.
Initially, I would find myself feeling drained at the end of these shifts, as would other employees new to hotline work. Thanks to supportive colleagues and supervisors, and my parents and friends who let me vent as well as a regular workout schedule, I would go back to my next shift with a renewed sense of purpose. Gradually, the feeling of being drained became more of satisfaction, and answering these calls became a practiced skill.
About mid-April, IDEPC staff were being assigned to contact tracing and case investigations because these were two activities the division performed for other infectious diseases before COVID-19 arrived, and hence had more experience with than other divisions. Hotlines were being taken over by employees from divisions other than IDEPC.
Student-workers in IDEPC were also included in this transition. I shall need to write another article on these experiences specifically. But after a month of working on the COVID-19 hotline, I developed not only a useful new skill but also a new appreciation for the work done by hotline employees.