Long Beach COVID Call Center Operators Provide Information and Support to Thousands in Ongoing Pandemic
Early last March, the City of Long Beach activated its Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in response to the rapidly-growing COVID-19 crisis. The EOC's Joint Information Center (JIC) was charged with handling all COVID-related communications. As part of Long Beach's "all hands on deck" approach to the crisis, the City established a COVID Call Center as part of the JIC, borrowing employees from many different departments to field the thousands of telephone calls that were inundating City Health Department switchboards.
"We are in the trenches," said Gina Overholt, who was recruited from her Health Department position as Veterans Commission Coordinator to serve as Supervisor of the Call Center's general line, a six-person team which handles the bulk of incoming calls.
"We don't work from home. We follow the protocols, physically distancing, using masks and hand sanitizer, but we're a close-knit group and we support and care for each other. What impresses me most about this team is its dedication to customer service,” she said. “Everybody has bought into the vision of being a one-stop shop, supplying callers with the information they need."
Although the emphasis has shifted now, almost a year since the JIC activated, from testing to vaccines, the Call Center is no less busy than it was when the crisis started. After handling over 43,000 calls from March through December of 2020, the Center experienced the busiest month of its existence in January of 2021, receiving nearly 7,000 calls.
Throughout the crisis, the Call Center has constantly evolved and adapted to changing conditions, directives and protocols established by the City of Long Beach, the County of Los Angeles, the State of California and the Centers for Disease Control. Operators on the general line prepare for and respond to a wide range of questions to everyone who rings in, from residents to medical professionals.
They educate callers about COVID-19 symptoms, provide advice on symptoms management, help them deal with positive COVID test results within their families and at the workplace, sign them up for testing appointments and provide test results. If the caller has urgent, resource-related needs, the operator will connect them to the services they need.
Ensuring that callers have accurate and timely information has been the Call Center's priority, but over the months of the crisis, a more important currency has emerged for the Center operators: humanity.
"I've had grown people cry," said Overholt. "They’re scared. They’re sick. Some have lost their jobs, or are about to be evicted. They need answers. Callers are thrilled to have a live person pick up the phone so they can be heard, helped and comforted. I call my job 'people whisperer.'"
Call Center operator Leonela Chaj-Torres, who began her involvement last March as a City COVID testing center Medical Reserve Corps volunteer before moving to the Call Center, offered a similar sentiment.
"Call activity is often non-stop," Chaj-Torres said. "You’re trying to help everyone calling in and give them your time because frequently they just want to be heard. I came to realize how many people were just longing for some human connection, even if it's with a stranger over the phone."
Most incoming calls are from English and Spanish speakers, but the Center is equipped to handle calls in Khmer and Tagalog as well. The skill and speed with which Long Beach is accommodating its entire population in all phases of its COVID-19 response has earned compliments from Governor Gavin Newsom, who was in town in late February to see the City's COVID response for himself.
Call Center operator Ronnie Romero, who normally works at Special Events and Filming in the City Manager's office, shared how much he learned about what worked and what didn't as the crisis unfolded. Together, the Call Center operators made decisions that were in the best interest of providing effective and meaningful service for the residents of Long Beach and neighboring cities and counties.
“I want the residents of Long Beach to know about the incredible effort and genuine commitment from leadership and staff from departments across the City to do whatever is necessary to help our community keep moving forward," said Romero.“During the pandemic, when faced with uncertainty, City staff didn’t ask ‘why me?,’” Romero continued, “but rather we asked ‘what can I do to help?’”
As the COVID-19 crisis continues to evolve, Call Center operators will remain on duty, assisting and comforting callers while staying aware of the constantly-shifting COVID playing field.
"Our staff is great at turning on a dime," said Overholt, who was recently told by her JIC supervisor that her new job isn't going anywhere in the near future. She was also told by a recent caller that her knowledge and people skills helped them "see the light at the end of the tunnel."
"Humanity is our stock in trade," Overholt said. "A tiny bit of that goes a long way."