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An Upstate volunteer speaks on the phone at the COVID-19 call center.

More than 62,000 have asked about COVID-19 symptoms with Upstate special triage line and assessment tool

New Upstate University Hospital resources – including a triage hotline and an online assessment tool chatbot – to provide people with information on the coronavirus and COVID-19 have proven popular and helpful with more than 10,000 calls and 51,000 users respectively.

The regional triage line has received 11,072 calls since it opened March 14. The assessment tool chatbot, linked on Upstate’s website, has had 51,566 users since it was launched March 20.

The triage line has been open 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily and is staffed with volunteers from across Upstate. Calls to the triage line peaked on Wednesday, March 18 with 880 calls. That number has dipped to about 300 to 400 per day in the last week. Chatbot users peaked on March 20 with more than 8,000 users and between 1,000 and 2,000 people are using the service per day more recently.

The content of what people are calling and asking about has evolved since the resources opened, said nurse Michele Caliva, who works as administrative director the New York Poison Center and is heading up the COVID-19 call center with Joey Angelina, MS, RN, administrative director of the Upstate Triage and Transfer Center. Early calls and questions involved people asking about symptoms and where local testing was available. More recent calls have involved people asking about their test results and what to do if they think they were exposed, Caliva and Angelina said.

Early calls were triaged using an algorithm developed by clinical staff at Upstate to determine if the person should seek testing. As of April 6, of the 11,072 calls received, 2,456 were directed to a testing site.

Caliva said Upstate is proud to offer the resource to the community.

“It’s a voice. It’s somebody to talk to. It’s somebody who is able to discern what’s correct and what’s not because we know this can be overwhelming,” she said. “Having that voice on the other end of the phone can be really reassuring.”

The assessment tool is a joint effort between Upstate and Microsoft. The tool, known as a chatbot, asks users a series of questions about symptoms and potential contact with someone who has COVID-19. The objective of the system is to triage and track patients which has been shown by South Korea and other countries to be an important tool in managing the spread of the virus. 

The line and chatbot have been staffed with volunteer Upstate nurses, medical students and other clinical staff. They have all been eager to help and diligent in providing current, accurate information, directing people to testing sites as well as additional resources, Caliva said. The line is for non-911 calls and was intended to help prevent emergency departments and community physicians from being overwhelmed with non-emergency visits during the pandemic.

The hotline covers a 14-county area but calls are coming from across the state and beyond, Angelina said.

“We’re receiving calls from all over the country from people who don’t know what to do or where to go,” she said. “This line is a great relief for people who don’t have a primary care physician or don’t know where to go if they are exhibiting symptoms.” 

The majority of callers have been calm and appreciative, Caliva said. Ocassionally she or another manager have helped someone who is especially anxious or upset about the pandemic. Those callers have been offered additional resources to address mental health concerns, she said.

Call center staff are also trouble-shooting individual situations, Angelina said. For instance, a caller needed to be tested but didn’t have a way to get to the testing site. Call center staff did not want to recommend public transportation so they arranged for the person to get a ride to the testing site. Angelina also worked with Upstate marketing to create 5,000 illustrated COVID-19 explainer cards for local emergency personnel working on ambulances and emergency vehicles to give to people and families who don’t speak English. The cards feature pictures of what symptoms look like, she said. The idea came about after a local EMT said he’d encountered with a large refugee family that didn’t understand what was happening and the only person in the family who spoke English was a 7-year-old child.

Despite long hours and sometimes difficult conversations Upstate staff have been eager to work at the call center, Angelina said.

“We have not been short any shifts, we haven’t had to call anybody in,” she said. “The staff is getting great satisfaction because they feel like they’re helping and they’re able to do something now.”

Upstate’s COVID-19 triage number is 315-464-3979 and the online assessment tool can be found at www.upstate.edu/emergencymgt/trending/coronavirus.php.