Health Care Heroes: OHSU’s Covid hotline helps to save lives

Nurses who answer the phones at the free services respond to hundreds of calls a day

By: - December 27, 2021 7:00 am
Dr. Anthony Cheng at OHSU

Dr. Anthony Cheng set up Oregon Health & Science University’s Covid-19 hotline in March 2020. (Anthony Cheng/OHSU)

Seven days a week, nurses are ready with answers on a special hotline established to help Oregonians deal with Covid.

Hundreds of calls come through every day on the free Covid hotline created in March 2020 by Oregon Health & Science University.

By phone, nurses work to answer questions about the coronavirus and help those who are seek.  

“I definitely think we’ve saved lives,” said Jennifer Arnold, a registered nurse and one of four charge nurses among a staff of 18 nurses who staff the hotline. Each works 12 hours a day, three days a week as part of their normal schedule while working from home.

Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series highlighting health care professionals who work behind the scenes or go beyond their job to keep Oregonians healthy.
Every patient who tests positive for Covid at OHSU gets the hotline number. It also turns up via a web search. Nurses keep a confidential record of the calls for any follow-up. 

Though most of the callers are in the Portland-area, people call from around the state and from Alaska to the East Coast.

“There are not a lot of hotlines like this in the country,” said Dr. Anthony Cheng, medical director of OHSU’s COVID-19 Connected Care Center hotline. Oregon residents can call the general information number 2-1-1 for information about various needs, including Covid, but waits can be long and it’s not staffed by health care professionals. 

OHSU did not provide an average wait time.

Cheng said OHSU had considered opening a hotline for patients for years. 

“Like many things, Covid caused it to come to fruition,” Cheng said. 

The nurses respond to callers regardless of where they live. In the early months of the service, most people asked where they could get a Covid test, Cheng said. The hotline also gets a lot of questions about the next step for people who’ve tested positive. Others ask about symptoms. Some people call when they are critically ill.

Jennifer Arnold
Jennifer Arnold of OHSU helps with the special Covid hotline. (OHSU)

Arnold remembers one caller on Thanksgiving. 

The patient was anxious and difficult to understand. Arnold looked up the caller’s chart in OHSU’s electronic medical record. They had tested positive for Covid. 

“I could hear the struggling that was going on with the breathing and the coughing and the wheezing, and I knew that this patient needed help,” Arnold said.

The lack of a computer at home ruled  out a virtual medical call. Because of the holiday, no clinics were open. That left one option – the emergency room.

I definitely think we’ve saved lives.

– Jennifer Arnold, one of four charge nurses working on OHSU's Covid hotline

The person resisted but Arnold stayed on the line for 45 minutes until medics arrived.

Some patients who’ve tested their oxygen levels have reported counts as low as 80%. The normal range starts at 90%.

OHSU’s Covid hotline:

833-OHSU-CCC or 833-647-8222

8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day.

“Some of those patients ended up in intensive care,” Cheng said.

He cited one patient in particular.

“If they had waited that could have resulted in a cardiac arrest, and then they would have died at home,” Cheng said.

Getting patients the most appropriate care can be difficult by phone. 

“Sometimes we can hear them coughing or wheezing on the phone and we can make an assessment based on that,” Arnold said. “It does require a more active listening skill and you’re using your clinical judgment because you aren’t seeing them. So we often err on the side of caution.”

Physicians on call for the hotline

The hotline has physicians on call to answer questions from other physicians around the state, and access to immediate care clinics to provide treatment.

They also help patients who need to quarantine.

“If they can’t isolate or they don’t have a place to go, we can hook them up with a hotel where they can isolate,” Arnold said. “And food will be dropped off to them.”

“It’s been sort of amazing how many people have found us and how many people we’ve reached,” Arnold said.The nurses also have arranged for food for people at home.

Helping patients and saving lives satisfied staff, but fielding calls for hours at a time takes a toll.

It's been sort of amazing how many people have found us and how many people we've reached.

– Jennifer Arnold, one of four charge nurses on OHSU's Covid hotline

“We are dealing with a lot of emotional callers and sometimes they’re coming from a place of fear and that can be challenging,” Arnold said. “We are trying to reach people through the phone and sometimes that’s harder.”

Not all patients accept the advice, and everyone has a good outcome.

“You hear about things that don’t go well for people,” Cheng said. “You absorb a little of that.” 

The hotline was funded with a $1.6 million grant from the Andrew and Corey Morris-Singer Foundation. Corey Morris-Singer, a biologist and researcher, is on the OHSU Foundation Board. Dr. Andrew Morris-Singer is an assistant professor in OHSU’s Department of Family Medicine. 

The line was intended to serve people who don’t have a doctor or who have limited resources.

Arnold thinks it is here to stay.

“It’s been sort of amazing how many people have found us and how many people we’ve reached,” Arnold said. “Just seeing where we’ve come and how much we’ve grown and how much we’ve really done and been able to serve people, it’s been tremendous.”

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Lynne Terry
Lynne Terry

Lynne Terry has more than 30 years of journalism experience, including a recent stint as editor of The Lund Report, a highly regarded health news site. She reported on health and food safety in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio for nine years.