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United Way’s 211 help-line calls about food, medical testing surge during coronavirus pandemic

Calls are coming into the United Way’s 211 help line at four times the typical volume — with Marylanders looking for places to get tested for the coronavirus or find food. Some need help paying their bills or want to talk to someone about their fears.

Franklyn Baker, president of the United Way of Central Maryland, said call takers are directing people 24 hours a day to “grab and go” sites to pick up meals and providing up-to-date information on the virus and what resources are available.

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“This is so unprecedented,” Baker said. “When they are seeking answers, we point them in the right direction while being as efficient and as compassionate as we can.”

The United Way answered more than 15,000 calls this month, including some 1,100 on Monday alone. Baker said nearly 40% in the past week were people looking to obtain food. Another 20% had health care questions — including ones about the coronavirus.

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Most of the calls came from Baltimore; the United Way of Central Maryland also serves residents of the counties of Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard.

Other hotlines in Maryland also reported increases, although not as substantial as 211’s. Baltimore officials did not immediately provide data for the city’s 311 nonemergency help line.

The 211 help line has been a central clearinghouse during the pandemic, with officials from Gov. Larry Hogan to the state Department of Health encouraging Marylanders to reach out to the United Way.

Baker said 211 can help people find ways to manage their essential needs, as well as their mental health. In addition to food and coronavirus questions, callers can get information about housing and shelter, utilities assistance, unemployment benefits, help with tax preparation, and substance abuse and employment services.

“There are over 6,000 resources available in our region,” Baker said. “We like to say, there are more than 211 reasons why one should call 211.”

The team of call takers are working from home, using laptops and remote technology to connect with people in need. Among them is Ann Johnson, who has been on the other end of countless 211 calls over the past 15 years.

“It is a bit different than the usual kinds of calls that we are receiving in some ways — and in others, it is very much the work we always do,” Johnson said.

The first wave of increased calls came from people looking for information on the virus itself: where they could be tested, the symptoms they were experiencing and worries about their loved ones. In more recent days, she said, the calls began to shift to people looking for specific information about what businesses are closed and whether it would be safe for them to go to work or if their job was essential.

The No. 1 call now is for people who need food, Johnson said. That includes seniors with health conditions who should not be outside their homes and people who are disabled who need access to resources to meet their basic needs.

To support the call takers, Johnson said, the United Way has researchers scouring through all the developments related to the virus and its aftermath, so they can provide the public with accurate and timely information.

The team also reaches back to callers who may need additional help or seem especially vulnerable, Johnson said. They try to make sure the people received the help they needed. In one recent case, Johnson said, a caller’s power wheelchair broke down and 211 helped make sure a new one was delivered.

For people who are in severe emotional distress, Johnson said, 211 will connect them to specialized resources. She said the call takers also let seniors know they can register for daily phone calls through the state Department of Aging.

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At Baltimore Crisis Response Inc., Quinita Garrett said calls have ticked up some. The response center runs a 24-hour hotline for people in crisis at 410-433-5175. Calls in the Baltimore region made to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline are routed through the center. The 211 hotline also connects people to the crisis center when people are in urgent need of mental health help.

Garrett, director of hotline services for the nonprofit, said the typical 100 to 150 calls they get a day has increased by about 30 to 40. Some of the calls include people worried they may have contracted the coronavirus or who are feeling depressed because they are isolated, she said. The center’s other calls involve people who are suicidal or homicidal, victims of domestic violence or those coping with grief and loss.

To deal with the influx of calls to 211, the United Way has created a COVID-19 Community Fund that supports the 211 team and added new full- and part-time staff members.

The nonprofit is also tapping into a growing network of volunteers. Baker said the United Way is beginning to train some of the more than 60 people who have volunteered to take calls since the pandemic broke.

Still, United Way says, more volunteers are needed, especially people who have backgrounds in case management and social work.

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