During a crisis, accurate and timely information is often the most precious commodity. Much of the job of providing Vermonters with crucial coronavirus data falls to MaryEllen Mendl, executive director of the United Ways of Vermont, and her team of community resource specialists at the Vermont 2-1-1 program.
Mendl described 2-1-1 as "phone Google — only better, because we vet everything ... We don't give out the phone number for Pizza Hut, but we do help people with their day-to-day needs in an emergency."
A cheery New Jersey native who has worked for United Ways since her college days, Mendl has overseen Vermont's 2-1-1 program since its inception in 2005. She's been involved in numerous crises, including Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 and last November's ice storm, when 2-1-1 fielded property damage reports from the public.
Vermonters typically call 2-1-1 if they can't pay their rent, are defrauded, lose their health insurance, suffer domestic violence or need help filling out tax returns.
In recent weeks, the Vermont Department of Health has been inundated with public inquiries about COVID-19. Now, 2-1-1 is trying to take over the task of information referral, or what Mendl called "the art and science of bringing people together."
The 2-1-1 call center is located in the rear of an Essex Junction strip mall. On Thursday, two of Mendl's five full-time resource specialists staffed the phones. Back in October, the rising cost of an after-hours answering service forced the nonprofit to scale back its operations from 24-7 to 12 hours per day, five days a week. Since then, however, the coronavirus has led them to ramp back up to around-the-clock coverage, work in shifts and train new volunteers to field the growing number of queries.
The pandemic has been particularly challenging, Mendl explained, because it's spreading rapidly, much is unknown and public health recommendations can change daily.
Among the most common questions callers asked early on, Mendl said, were whether people should wear face masks and where they were sold. As her staff informed callers, health officials aren't encouraging people to wear them — unless they're sick.
"But that's not what the person wants to hear," she said. "They want to know where they can get masks."
Margaret Armstrong, who was fielding calls last Thursday, said that businesses have been inquiring about how to best protect customers and employees. One caller wanted to know how long the virus survives on plastic food packaging. Another asked about the proper protocol for disinfecting a hydroelectric dam.
In past weeks, before Gov. Scott ordered schools to close, the callers were more commonly parents inquiring about whether their kids should attend extracurricular activities, or school administrators unsure whether they should cancel them. One 2-1-1 call-taker even received a call from a Northern Vermont University professor who was in Italy with students and was unsure how to protect them from the virus.
Though most callers are polite and pleasant, Mendl said, some are stressed out and frightened. Still others have received conflicting information from different state agencies. But because 2-1-1 will only dispense information that's been vetted by the health department or the CDC, sometimes the program lacks answers — such as what overseas students should do or how to disinfect a hydroelectric dam. Callers who face difficult decisions can get angry or frustrated.
Mendl may face a hard choice of her own. If the infection rate continues to climb at its current pace, she fully expects her 2-1-1 operations to be impacted, too. Her staff may soon be working from home.