Every day, the Yakima Health District receives hundreds of emails and phone calls related to COVID-19. It is not surprising, considering the pandemic is the “crisis of our lifetime,” as the agency’s executive director has described it.
André Fresco, executive director of the health district, mentioned the huge volume of calls and email in response to a question from Yakima County Commissioner Norm Childress during the board of health meeting June 24.
Understandably, the move spurred even more phone calls, which the health district anticipated. On July 3, the health district allocated nine staff members to answer phone calls, district Chief Operating Officer Ryan Ibach said in an email Friday.
“On (July 3) we received 125 calls in relation to moving to Phase 1.5,” Ibach said. “We are still receiving several calls each day but the calls are dropping off and we plan to have a couple people still available to answer calls next week.”
Businesses can call the health district’s main number, 509-575-4040, if they have questions or visit its website, “which has a lot of valuable information,” Ibach said. The site has detailed “tool kits” for businesses listed by industry.
Information related to the COVID-19 pandemic is something people can’t get enough of, prompting the many phone calls and emails to the health district as concerned citizens try to sift through what’s correct and what’s not, and what steps they should be taking.
Childress had asked during the June 24 board of health meeting if a $10 million pilot program to help Yakima County slow the spread of COVID-19 would include additional employees to respond to calls and emails with questions about the coronavirus.
The state-supported program will add staff to coordinate care, respond to outbreaks and share information on the coronavirus with the broad goal of bringing down an infection rate that remains high. It won’t add employees to specifically respond to COVID-19 phone calls and emails, though.
“We’re getting a ton of requests and questions as we would expect. I know you guys are getting a lot too,” Childress said.
It’s a situation familiar to public agencies and nonprofits throughout the U.S. as the pandemic continues, affecting almost every aspect of daily life and spurring questions ranging from issues with data to food support.
Yakima County Commissioner Vicki Baker also highlighted the issue, saying a call to the Health District’s main line, 509-575-4040, went straight to voice mail.
“The community feels they’re not being heard,” Baker said.
Ibach said the district streamlined its system for handling phone calls and emails in early June. One person answers the phone, plus a backup, he said, routing the calls to the right departments.
Considering the high call volume and need for accurate information, which can get lost in the swirl of social media, more help couldn’t hurt, some health board members said.
“I think it would be very worthwhile in investing in more people to answer the phones,” said board member Kay Funk.
Community members can also call the state coronavirus hotline and 211.
The Washington 211 system helps connect people with community resources statewide. Staff and volunteers take hundreds of daily calls related in some way to COVID-19.
The nonprofit People For People in Yakima handles 211 calls in 16 Eastern Washington counties, including Yakima. Along with calls for utilities, housing and food assistance, the 211 operators also are fielding calls about where people can get and register for COVID-19 tests.
Many of the Yakima Health District calls are business-related, health district spokeswoman Lilian Bravo said in an email.
“Locally, most people end up calling up about issues related to a business, whether it’s what to do if an employee has COVID-19, businesses not enforcing masking, questions about when to return to work,” she said. In those cases, the Environmental Health Help Desk Line is 509-249-6508.
Bravo encouraged health board members to contact her if they are starting to see any trends in questions from the public.
“If you’re starting to see a question pop up, just let me know,” she said. “Honestly it changes every single week, what the rumor is.”