Volunteers hand out food to area residents during a food distribution event that was put together through a collaboration between Second Harvest Food Bank, The United Way and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Wednesday, May 27, 2020, in Lafayette, La. Last month, over 3000 cars came through the line.

Louisiana’s network of 211 call centers saw a 220% increase in call volume last year, a unique illustration of the need for information and services spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic and a destructive hurricane season.

Louisiana 211 is a free, 24/7 referral service that connects residents in Louisiana’s 64 parishes to information about essential services, including housing, local food assistance programs, mental health care and employment support. In 2020, Gov. John Bel Edwards tapped 211 as the hub for state residents with COVID-19 questions to get up-to-date information on everything from the basics of the virus to vaccine locations.

Operators at the state’s three 211 call centers in Lafayette, Monroe and New Orleans handled 290,002 calls in 2020, up 220% from call volume in 2019. Of those calls, more than 53% were people seeking COVID-19 information and roughly 20% were hurricane survivors seeking storm help, including after Hurricanes Laura and Delta battered southwest Louisiana, Louisiana 211 said in a press release.

Sarah Berthelot, president and CEO of Louisiana Association of United Ways and Louisiana 211 statewide disaster and project lead, said many of the calls have been from the elderly, people with disabilities and people without seamless internet connections. There’s also a large volume of new callers; people who haven’t needed 211’s assistance before, who are now experiencing instability or who are caring for family members during the pandemic and need new forms of assistance, she said.

Research suggests it takes an average of eight calls to get basic information about services without 211. Berthelot said their network is grateful to ease some of that strain on residents, especially in this past year, when the fear and anxiety in people’s voices has been clear on calls.

“In many cases, 211 is able to listen to a caller and provide a solution to a need that perhaps a caller may not know how to ask for. The 211 teams don’t just listen to what the 211 caller presents, but they listen in a way that allows them to surface up other forms of help that the caller might need to address the root cause of what they’re experiencing,” Berthelot said.

The United Way leader said the three call centers can exceed 100 operators any given day, as the network analyzes call demand and other data to prevent long wait times. Louisiana 211 also uses a call-back system where callers can leave their number and receive a return call from the next available operator, rather than sitting on the line, Berthelot said.

The call service also has at minimum eight full-time coordinators who work at their call centers and partner United Way agencies to ensure all resources are hyperlocal and as up-to-date as possible by working with municipal, parish and state governments and collaborating with local nonprofits and support organizations, she said.

Sometimes getting people the information they need requires getting creative. In 2020, Louisiana 211 offered a texting service in partnership with the Louisiana Department of Health. Residents texted LACOVID to 898-211 to receive links to high-need COVID-19 information like vaccine sign-ups, testing site locations and curated Q-and-As about the virus and mitigation efforts. The service was used by more than 93,000 people in 2020, a Louisiana 211 release said.

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Neka Mire, call center director for 232-HELP, which serves 10 parishes in the Acadiana region, said another benefit of speaking to a live, trained operator is that call workers build rapport with callers and can determine the needs people aren’t expressing, or maybe don’t realize they have. Often, people don’t know how to ask for what they need or don’t know that help is available, she said.

“A lot of times people are not aware of the different resources that are available, and without that awareness of course you’re going to have even more difficulty locating the things that you need,” Mire said.

Mire and 232-HELP Executive Director Chris Roy estimated their center’s call volume has at least doubled since this time last year. The Lafayette center now daily employs between five and six operators, up from three this time last year. At its peak, 14 to 15 operators were working at once, they said.

Mire said she’s been struck by how the pandemic has increased the complexity of people’s needs. Whereas a family may have previously called seeking food assistance, now they’re seeking food assistance, housing assistance and clothing. It’s been a snowball effect, she said.

“The pandemic has really pushed people. They’re having elevated stress levels, and pretty much it’s the entire 360 degree scope of an individual or family that’s affected by COVID. It’s not just a disease, it’s going to affect your ability to pay your utility bills. So we see this cascading effect….The pandemic definitely exacerbated a lot of people who were already on the economic margins,” Roy said.

The 232-HELP staffers said unfortunately help isn’t always immediately available to callers, but operators take detailed notes on unmet needs, while keeping individual caller information confidential, which is used for weekly reports that can help inform resource direction for local governments, United Way agencies — anyone they can get the data in front of, Roy said.

Resources are scarce and nonprofit and service organizations are strained, so knowing what the picture of need looks like is critical, he said.

While the goal of 211 is to offer referrals and information, having a person to speak with personally has its own benefits; many people have been dramatically isolated by the pandemic, Roy said. It’s a universal experience to desire to be heard and understood, he said.

“When people are vulnerable and feel like they really, really have a problem, talking with someone gives them great relief. We’ve heard on the phones over and over again how grateful people are to talk to a live person who can help them in that moment. That’s come through loud and clear,” Berthelot said.

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