211 gets influx of calls during coronavirus pandemic

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) The United Ways' 211 hotline is considered the community's telephone number and it's getting an influx of calls during the coronavirus pandemic.

Since the coronavirus outbreak, calls to 211 have doubled daily. The team says that amounts to between 250 and 300 calls a day, including 1,800 total just with questions about COVID19.

All those phone calls are fielded by just 61 workers, 55 of them volunteers who signed up to help the six full-time workers.

United Ways of Vermont oversees the 211 and Help Me Grow Vermont programs. Like most state agencies, the group had a plan in place for a scenario like this, which they've practiced, but Executive Director MaryEllen Mendl says nothing could really prepare them for this pandemic.

"It's a very hard situation to be in. I'm not able to call another 211 in another state and say can you back us up, because they're dealing with the same thing," said Mendl. "The fun part is, actually, that we're connecting people with resources. As you probably know, there's resources popping up left and right in every community. It's great to see. These grassroots resources to bring people food or run errands for people, go get their prescriptions, pick them up."

Mendl says their employees simply don't have answers to many questions they're receiving. For example, she says inquiries about test kits and results should go to the Vermont Health Department. Those about violations of the "Stay Home, Stay Safe" order should go to law enforcement. Those about housing during the day should go to the Economic Services Division.

"Between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 a.m. Monday through Friday, you don't want to call 211 for housing," said Mendl.

But anytime outside of those hours, you can.

She says the calls she's most concerned about, though, are those that should be directed to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which is designed to ensure every person gets through to an employee.

"I would hate to have people wait or leave a message, even worse," said Mendl.

But if you do reach out to 211, Mendl says someone will always return the call, regardless.

"It's the community's telephone number, this is what we're here for. But be patient," she said.

Mendl says people are just happy to get that callback and know their voice is heard, even if the team can only help so much. She says they're constantly updating the 211 resource database, including hours of operations and types of services provided.