Top health care requests for 211: Feb. 18 to March 18.

Since March 8, United Way of Central Iowa’s 211 call center has been operating as the statewide Coronavirus Hotline. In just the past 10 days, the call center has handled more than 4,000 telephone calls directing Iowans to information about COVID-19 testing. 

“The volume has been much higher than expected,” said Elisabeth Buck, president of United Way of Central Iowa. The organization’s 211 center, which is the largest of four in the state, has doubled its existing call staff to help handle the increased volume. Additionally, beginning on Tuesday its staff has been augmented by 10 nurses from the Polk County Health Department, who are fielding medical-related questions about COVID-19. 

The 4,034 calls taken answering questions about COVID-19 are on top of hundreds of social services topics the organization addresses. During the same week a year ago, the call center handled just over 2,100 calls. 

According to a real-time online dashboard — 2-1-1 Counts — over the past 30 days, United Way of Central Iowa has answered more than 6,100 information requests through the 211 center.

More than one-third of those calls were related to tax preparation assistance, because taxpayers still need to file by April 15. Last week, however, the Treasury Department pushed back the deadline for payment of taxes owed to July 15. The volunteer tax preparation programs operated by United Way and AARP Iowa have been at least temporarily shut down. 

Housing and rental assistance are also a big emerging need as many retail and restaurant workers have been left without work, Buck said. 

“This week has really switched to Iowans calling who are wondering how they’re going to pay their rent or afford groceries,” she said. “We’re walking them through the process of filing for unemployment insurance, and also directing them to rent assistance or food programs. … 
We’re seeing and hearing from Iowans that they’re just concerned about how they’re going to meet their basic needs.” 

There are multiple scenarios playing out among families, from workers who are staying at home because they’ve potentially been exposed to the virus to those who must remain home to take care of children whose child care center is closed. “There’s no single way that people are feeling this,” Buck said. 

For those who are still working or otherwise in a position to help financially, the best thing they can do is contribute to the Disaster Recovery Fund that United Way and the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines jointly launched earlier this week. 

As the crisis continues, “There are going to be a lot of system needs that we just can’t even imagine today,” Buck said. “We know that there are marginalized populations that are struggling. 
There are just a lot of ripple effects from this kind of disaster. We know that we’re better together.” 

Other ways that people can help are by making donations of food or cash to the Food Bank of Iowa and the food pantries such as the Des Moines Area Religious Council. “There is just a greater need for food with so many kids out of school, Buck said. “Our community is coming together to try to find ways to feed kids. If individuals want to get involved by donating food or money, that’s crucial.” 

Finally, those who are able should remember to look out for their neighbors, Buck suggested. 
“Reach out to see if they need anything and be willing to run an errand for them.” 

About the 211 medical call line: 
The 211 medical call line will be staffed with medical professionals Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. to help alleviate the increased call demand on clinics and hospitals. 

The 211 line should be used the same way an individual would contact their health care provider. The line will answer questions about mild symptoms and whether you need to be tested. If you have mild symptoms, call 211 and do not go to your health care provider or emergency room. 

MercyOne, Primary Health Care, UnityPoint Health and Broadlawns are each asking anyone showing symptoms of COVID-19 to call 211 to speak to a medical professional first.

Hospital emergency rooms and 911 should be reserved for patients who are in severe respiratory distress. If you have symptoms before or after the hours of the 211 medical phone line, then call your health care provider. 

Each health system will be using the same guidelines for determining whether a patient qualifies for testing. These criteria are subject to change but will be updated and available on the Polk County Health website. Current criteria state that you will only be tested if you are exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19.