Calls To Helpline Surge Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

Apr 2, 2020

This story is produced in partnership with Columbia Journalism Investigations, the Center for Public Integrity and Side Effects Public Media.

The coronavirus crisis has had a big impact on Indiana 211, the phone and text service that connects Hoosiers with resources was swamped last month with calls. 

At the beginning of March, 211 was getting several hundred calls a day -- about the same rate as a year ago. Then, the coronavirus hit Indiana.

Schools closed and the governor told Hoosiers to stay home. Many people who lost jobs or who faced the COVID-19 threat were in search of help and answers.  

On March 18, the 211 service got nearly 25,000 calls. That single-day total is more than the service received in all of March 2019. 

Catherine McNaughton, interim director for 211, says most callers want information on food, housing, utility assistance, health care or income support. 

"There's a higher need for basic needs," she says. 

In March 2020, over 55,000 people reached out to 211. McNaughton says the service has hired additional staff and volunteers to handle the increase. 

A national hotline also saw a big increase in March. Calls and texts to the federal disaster distress helpline jumped eightfold in a month, according to reporting from Columbia Journalism Investigations and the Center for Public Integrity. The March 2020 total easily surpassed a previous spike in 2017, when hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria hit.

“This feels different, and it is,” said Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor of psychological science, medicine and public health at the University of California, Irvine. “This is an invisible threat: We don’t know who is infected, and anyone could infect us.

"This is an ambiguous threat: We don’t know how bad it will get … we don’t know how long it will last. And this is a global threat: No community is safe.”