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Health Communications Coordinator Bethany Traverse Talks about the Heart Behind the Barnstable County COVID-19 Helpline

“Volunteers do not necessarily have the time; they just have the heart.”  – Elizabeth Andrew

A screen shot showing six of our Medical Reserve Corps Helpline Volunteers during a “daily debrief”. Clockwise from top left: MRC COVID-19 Helpline Volunteer Vivian Esswein, Pat Picard, Barbara Good, Health Communications Coordinator Bethany Traverse, Cathy Read, Judy Stevens, Natalie Mariano.

A few weeks ago, after a hectic morning putting out fires following the announcement of a pause in distribution of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, I ventured out for a walk in the woods near the Santuit Pond Conservation Area to clear my head. As the Health Communications Coordinator, I’d already spent half the day helping to prepare press releases and social media posts, thinking about vaccine hesitancy and clinic registration. Suddenly the term “hot wash” popped into my head like a catchy song. It’s a funny word that comes up often in incident response. It means “…the immediate after-action discussions and evaluations of an agency’s performance following a major event”. I laughed to myself thinking of the hot wash that will likely take place after a doozy like COVID. So many things could have been addressed differently, better, more efficiently, with more planning, more foresight—in every level of every sector; no doubt it will be a hot topic in public health conferences nation-wide for decades to come. But for me, there is one very positive thing about this debacle that overshadows everything else, as it is one of the great successes of this life-altering pandemic. Volunteerism.

Now is a Perfect Time to Thank our Volunteers

It’s National Volunteer Month. What better time to acknowledge the hard work of our fellow community members who have been helping diligently and quietly behind the scenes of the COVID-19 pandemic, for no reason other than…they care. There are so many of these silent heroes that deserve recognition and praise, but I would like to highlight one small group who has played an integral role in helping our community members wade through the confusion and anxiety of COVID-19. They are the volunteers who support the Barnstable County COVID-19 Helpline.

How the Helpline Began

The Helpline was established in mid-January 2021 when one of our newly elected commissioners, Mark Forest, recognized the ever-increasing volume and complexity of information related to the pandemic. The situation was evolving daily, with information exploding out of the federal government, the state, media outlets, research institutions and public health entities. It was difficult for even public health officials to stay on top of and the public was bemused. Healthcare providers were swamped with calls and a quest for information was a circuitous trip through call prompts and voicemail boxes, with very little likelihood of hearing a voice on the other end of the line. Meanwhile, promises of a long-awaited vaccine rollout were looming, and people wanted answers.

The Helpline started out with 10 Cape Cod Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) volunteers and soon after expanded to 20. And then, due to overwhelming need, we added 10 more. The training process was not easy; the volunteers had to be brought up to speed not only on the most recent information pertaining to COVID-19, but there was a virtual technological component as well. Eventually, after hours of training (often on weekends) and extensive coordination, we were ready to open the phone lines. In the first hour alone, we received over 300 phone calls. To date, almost three months exactly following the inception of the Helpline, we have taken over 55,000 calls; equating to over 3,500 volunteer hours.

Callers Often Just Needed a Kind Voice to Make Sense of the Vaccine Rollout

Each one of those phone calls, and every minute of those 3,500 hours came from the heart of a genuine soul with a passionate desire to contribute to a weary community following a year of hardship. Especially when the vaccine rollout began in February, offering a less than straightforward online registration platform to an elderly population—many of whom hoped that getting vaccinated would simply involve a phone number to call, a friendly voice, and an appointment at a local clinic or physician’s office. But that was not the case. And our most vulnerable citizens were left confused, anxious and in need of assistance.

Our Helpline volunteers were given all the tools we at the County could provide, but they brought with them the most important contributions of all: empathy, compassion, patience, and reassurance. For the first month and a half we held “daily debriefs” after business hours to pool resources, share stories, get answers for call-backs, and commiserate about the callers’ struggles. We discovered that people were mostly just relieved to have someone to talk to, regardless of whether or we could answer their COVID-related questions or successfully help them get a vaccine appointment.

Thank you MRC Helpline Volunteers!

Oftentimes I find myself thinking of how inadequate and simplistic the word “volunteer” seems to be when describing the people who have selflessly dedicated their time to the Helpline. Every one of them are experienced professionals. Most have spent years working in healthcare and are now retired, while some are still actively working and take calls when can fit them in. The majority are nurses, doctors and public health workers who together form an astounding body of knowledge and expertise. They show up each day willingly and dependably, with remarkable patience and the eagerness to help each person to the best of their ability.

Although none of them expect recognition, I would like to put names to the wonderful MRC volunteers I have had the honor of working with in these last few months. Anne Sigsbee, Pat Picard, William Coady, Judy Kostka, Cari Keith, Vivian Esswein, Barbara Good, Natalie Mariano, Linda Traykovski, Janice Matheson, Pat Fryzel, Dianne McElroy, Amy Dubin, Colleen Clopek, Priscilla Brooks, Cindy Olotka, Judy Watkins, Mimi Secor, Joanne Gvazdauskas, Cathy Read, Judy Stevens, Ann Wells, Diane Pohl, Judi Hom, Lorette Butehorn, MaryJo Jollett, Judy Kearney, Karen Kuehl, Carolyn Saluti, Lynn Conover, Rosemary Mortimer, Pat Meservey, Erica Pearson, Pat Cassidy, Colleen Hession, Jamie de Sousa and Angela Hagrty. Among you are some of the most remarkable humans I have ever had the pleasure to meet and work alongside. Thank you for what you have done for the County and our community—you will forever be remembered as one of the great successes of the response to this life-altering pandemic

Bethany Traverse
Health Communications Coordinator
Barnstable County Department of Health and Environment