The state coronavirus hotline is dropping calls

A state Department of Health spokesperson said their phone system is being overwhelmed.

Updates on COVID-19 will appear here as part of ongoing coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

March 4, 12:08 p.m.

The Washington State Department of Health’s (DOH) coronavirus hotline has been dropping calls since Monday. As of Wednesday morning, the hotline – which had been a primary point of contact for information to the public – was still experiencing outages.

DOH public information officer Jessie Payne said they were adding more lines and staff to try and compensate for the increase in calls.

“This is an unprecedented situation, so we haven’t had this volume of calls and our system is not naturally set up for this type of response,” Payne said.

The phone center has up to 70 lines, and has an average wait time of about 10 minutes.

However, Payne said they were aware of issues. These include the phone line disconnecting after the caller presses the pound sign to connect to a state employee. Other were put on hold for up to 20 minutes before being disconnected.

The DOH was working to fix these problems. However, Payne said they thought the issues had already been resolved as of Wednesday morning. However, as of Wednesday morning, this reporter had tried calling the hotline to verify it was working, but was disconnected every time after pressing pound.

Payne said those with symptoms should call their doctor or hospital first, before going in so the facilities can prepare to recive them without potentially exposing other patients to the virus. The hotline should be used for prevention questions, like how to keep people healthy. She also pointed people to the DOH website for more information.

Update – 3:09 p.m

The University of Washington is planning to set up at least one testing facility for the general public, and possibly more. An announcement of the plan is expected within one week, said Peter McGough, medical director for UW Neighborhood Clinics.

These facilities would be similar to South Korea’s “drive-thru” testing stations, where people could come for testing. This will allow for more people to get tested. Currently, testing is only being provided following Centers for Disease Control guidelines. These restrict the tests to people who have traveled to countries with known coronavirus outbreaks, or to people who have come in contact with others suffering from confirmed cases.

But now that there have been community-transmitted cases, those guidelines will likely be expanded.

“At some point, we’re going to be doing more and more cases,” McGough said.

Update – 2:00 p.m.

A state Department of Health representative said they’re working with commercial partners to increase testing. The tests would remain state tests, but would be run through commercial testing locations.

There is no timeline on when agreements with commercial labs, like those at the University of Washington, could begin operating. There are also no estimates yet on how many additional tests these labs could facilitate.

For health care facilities, there are no specific hotlines for health care providers. The Department of Health has information online, and state health employees are working with health care facilities to provide guidance.

SEATTLE – 9:35 a.m.

Amid the ongoing outbreak of novel coronavirus in Washington state, health officials say they are only able to test about 100 people daily at the Public Health Lab in Shoreline.

Lisa Stromme Warren, a spokesperson for the state Department of Health, said the lab can run around 200 tests a day. Because cases require multiple tests, only around 100 people can be tested daily. The state is hoping to partner with the University of Washington to open commercial lab testing later today (March 3). It was unknown how much this could increase testing capacity, but that number should become available later today.

Those with symptoms of the virus are encouraged to call a Department of Health hotline, where an operator asks questions and can recommend a state-sponsored test.

Stromme Warren said the state is only testing people who meet certain criteria, including whether they have come in contact with a known case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

“Right now, I think that would be case by case and it would depend on their contact history,” Stromme Warren said.

Patients who are hospitalized with symptoms that can’t be explained by other illnesses are also tested.

In addition to testing, King County is in the process of purchasing a motel to be used for a quarantine site. The county is also setting up modular units around the county to isolate people with the virus. Specific locations are not yet available.

Health officials are urging the public to wash their hands frequently and cover coughs or sneezes. People who are sick are encouraged to stay home and either call in sick or telecommute to work.


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