News

Apr 14, 2020

Mainers have questions. Statewide help line aims to give them answers.

Maine's toll-free 211 referral line has had its call volume surge amid the coronavirus crisis.

Posted April 11th by the Portland Press Herald

BY MEGAN GRAY STAFF WRITER

 

The woman on the other end of the phone had a question about her month-old grandson.

She and her husband had been quarantined for 14 days, she explained. “When is the safe time for me to hold him?”

She had dialed 2-1-1, and Mike Perez was the specialist who took her call.

The 24/7 toll-free referral line has for years connected Mainers with a wide range of services from heating assistance to substance use treatment. But call volume nearly tripled from February to March as coronavirus hit the state, and 211 Maine has become a critical part of the emergency response to the pandemic.

Specialists like Perez are now answering dozens of questions every day about the virus, how to access essential services and what the stay-at-home order actually means. But they are also asked to weigh in on personal decisions, like whether to travel to Massachusetts to pick up a friend or to attend a cookout or to hold a newborn grandchild.

Perez asked the grandmother questions about her quarantine and her family. He explained the guidelines from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. And then he said she could probably visit her grandchild in a couple days because she had been following a strict protocol, but he advised her to stick with her habits and warned her to be careful about exposure even when traveling a short distance.

“We may not have a black-and-white answer, and that can be frustrating,” Perez said. “Anxiety can keep people from thinking clearly, so as soon as you can disarm them, you can have a conversation. That’s definitely part of what we do.”

A Portland Press Herald reporter was allowed to observe Perez during a shift this week but did not see any identifying information about callers. The agencies that manage 211 Maine say confidentiality is a vital part of the service.

The calls are coming from people with acute financial needs, which is typical, but also from health care providers and businesses, which is not. Some people are calm, while others are combative. And they all need answers.

Last year, more than 3,300 people called 211 Maine in March. The most common need was help in paying for heat or electricity. Others needed assistance with housing or food. Some people called for legal counseling or searching for outpatient mental health facilities.

Last month, more than 9,700 people called the referral line. At least 3,800 callers had questions related to coronavirus. But the number of calls about other needs increased as well, perhaps a sign of economic strain related to the pandemic. More than 450 calls fell into the category related to food pantries, more than three times the number from last March.

“There is a sense of urgency with the callers we’re getting,” said Derek Morin, who supervises the program. “Because it’s changing so fast.”

INSPIRED BY KATRINA RESPONSE

211 Maine began because of a different crisis.

A similar referral line had been part of the emergency response to Hurricane Katrina in other states, and then-governor John Baldacci wanted to establish a statewide resource in Maine. The program launched in 2006 as a collaboration between the United Ways of Maine and the state.

From the beginning, The Opportunity Alliance has operated the contact center, which is staffed around the clock. The nonprofit is the community action agency in Cumberland County, but 211 Maine covers the entire state. Most inquiries come through the phone, but the program launched a text message option in recent years as well.

Specialists who answer the 211 line always have an online database with more than 8,000 listings for a wide range of programs where callers can get help. They can search by subject and zip code, narrowing down the options to fit the caller’s needs. The program asks nonprofits and other agencies to check their listings for accuracy at least once a year.

“We’re commonly known as that place to go when you don’t know where else to go,” said Nikki Busmanis, who manages the 211 program for the United Ways.

211 Maine costs $1.16 million every year. Fifty-six percent of funding comes from the state, and 42 percent from the nine United Way organizations in Maine. Two percent comes from contracts with other states for special support.

The referral line has long been part of the response to storms, drought and other emergencies in Maine. During the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention relied on the line to respond to questions from the public. That agency contacted the leaders at 211 Maine again when coronavirus began to spread in the United States.

Karen Turgeon, interim vice president of programs at The Opportunity Alliance, said state officials predicted the line would get 80 calls a week related to the virus. Then the Maine CDC reported the first positive test result, and the phone started ringing. Last month, the number of coronavirus calls alone averaged to more than 100 per day.

The specialists received training from the Maine CDC as they started taking calls. They receive frequent updates with the latest information about health advice, emergency orders and community services.

“It’s confusing for people,” Turgeon said. “They’re calling and trying to figure out the process and are sometimes feeling scared and anxious, and that’s really coming through.”

The contact center at The Opportunity Alliance in South Portland was more quiet than usual Tuesday afternoon, but not because of a lull in calls. Seven specialists were logged in to answer the line, and most were working from home. The cubicles in the office smelled like lemon disinfectant, and lists of phone numbers were tacked on the walls above the desks.

Perez logged in at 3 p.m. He settled into a chair in front of two large computer monitors and put on a headset. His shift would last until nearly midnight.

“Anything new in the last couple days?” he asked Morin.

The supervisor gave Perez the latest updates, including a new call system for the state’s unemployment office. Then Perez turned to the monitors and began answering the phone. Call volumes have been highest in the morning, but he still answered more than a dozen in the first three hours of his shift. Almost all directly related to coronavirus.

Perez kept the same even tone with every caller. He would ask if they were ready to take down a phone number and wait for them to grab a pen. When the person on the other line was anxious or annoyed, he did not flinch.

“We’re supposed to be level-headed,” he said. “For me, I keep it tunnel vision, one call at a time.”

One woman had a question about the change in the income tax deadline, and she just needed the phone number for Maine Revenue Services. Perez pulled up the number in his database and read it over the phone. The call lasted just a couple minutes.

SAME JOB, MORE CALLS

“You’re welcome,” Perez said as the call ended. “Take care.”

A health care provider called to raise a concern about the lack of information she had received regarding positive tests in her large rural county. She sounded polite but tired. Perez gave her the number that providers can use to contact the Maine CDC.

“If we can’t provide answers, we at least know where to point people,” Perez said when he hung up the call. “In that regard, that’s where this job hasn’t changed. We’re doing it at higher volumes, but we’re still doing the basic premise.”

One man said he was staying in a hotel because he sold his house before the virus hit, and now he can’t get into a new place. But the hotel told him he needed to get approval to stay there because of lodging restrictions in the state’s stay-at-home order. Perez gave the man a phone number for businesses with questions about the governor’s order, and he suggested that the hotel staff call to get the necessary approval on the man’s behalf.

“Part of the onus would be on the hotel,” Perez told him.

Another caller wanted to press the board in her condominium association for information about any positive cases in their complex. He ultimately gave the woman a phone number for the Maine Attorney General’s Office in hopes that the consumer protection division would know about her rights. The question stumped Perez for a moment, but he kept the conversation going while he sent an online chat to other specialists for advice.

“It gives you a chance to think, what is your need?” he said later.

Not everyone seemed to take the pandemic as seriously. One man called to ask about his family’s plans for a cookout. Perez explained that the governor had advised against gatherings of more than 10 people. The man said he didn’t know of any cases near his home and scoffed at the stay-at-home order. Perez patiently reminded him that the Maine CDC has warned people to act like coronavirus is spreading in their own communities.

“But it’s your personal decision,” he added in a calm tone.

And not everyone called to ask about the pandemic. One woman called looking for help because a person in her life recently experienced an overdose. She was frantic and possibly crying. Perez gave her the phone numbers for multiple in-patient and outpatient substance use treatment providers in her area.

“We’re going to do what we can on our side to help you help him,” Perez said.

“It’s not like the rest of the world stopped,” he added later, and then he turned his attention to a text inquiry about testing for coronavirus.

OFTEN-ASKED QUESTIONS

When Gov. Janet Mills held a news conference to announce her stay-at-home order, the calls started coming to 211 Maine before she had even finished speaking. When the federal government passed a stimulus package that included aid for individuals and businesses, people called to ask when they would get their checks.

“We had to be very candid,” Busmanis said. “We’re just learning.”

The specialists have been compiling a list of frequent questions that go beyond the materials they received from the Maine CDC and other state agencies. Some questions – “Can I leave my house?” – have clear answers. (Yes, for activities like exercise or grocery shopping or going to an essential job.) Others – “How should I operate my medical practice while the stay-at-home order is in effect?” – are more complicated. (Maine 211 is working to establish a referral line specifically for health care providers so they can talk to experts in their fields.)

The program has also been asking nonprofits and other agencies to send them an update via email if their operations have changed due to the virus, so the specialists aren’t telling people to call phone numbers that won’t be answered or seek services that are on hiatus.

“We keep saying, check back in,” Morin said. “We’re getting information every single day.”

Perez, 34, started working at the contact center 10 months ago. He is just weeks from graduating from the University of Southern Maine with a degree in media studies, and his commencement will likely be different than he expected only weeks ago. But right now, even as his own life is changed by the pandemic, he said it helps to find answers for other people.

“We’re all in the same boat,” Perez said. “I’m just on the other side of the phone.”

WHO TO CALL FOR HELP

How to contact the 211 Maine referral line:
Dial 211 (or 207-874-2211)
Text your zip code to 898-211 to speak with a specialist.
Text MECOVID to 898-211 to subscribe to 211 Maine for updates related to COVID-19.

Other hotlines and helplines:
If your life or someone else’s life is in immediate danger, call 911.
The Opportunity Alliance operates the 24-hour Maine Crisis Line for people who are struggling specifically with mental health. If you are concerned for yourself or someone else, call 1-888-568-1112.
If you are concerned about child neglect or abuse, you can call a 24-hour hotline to speak with a child protective specialist at 1-800-452-1999. Calls can be made anonymously.
The statewide Domestic Violence Helpline connects callers with advocates at domestic violence resource centers across the state. Call 1-866-834-HELP (4357) for information, crisis counseling, emotional support and advocacy. Calls are confidential, and help is available at day and night.

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