UPDATE: The woman who contacted 13 Investigates for this story received a phone call from the Indiana State Department of Health on March 10 – a day after WTHR published this report and more than 96 hours after she contacted ISDH to inform the agency of coronavirus symptoms that she and her elderly mother were experiencing. The state health department recommended they both be tested for the COVID-19 virus. The two women are still waiting for their test results. In the meantime, the woman’s mother has been hospitalized due to severe respiratory problems as she waits to find out if she has contracted coronavirus.
ISDH spokeswoman Jeni O’Malley told 13 Investigates the state’s coronavirus call center is now staffed 24 hours per day.
“The primary purpose of the call center is to provide guidance from the CDC to healthcare providers and the public. Call center staff will not offer personal medical advice, nor will personal medical advice be given via email. Individuals who are ill should contact their healthcare provider,” she told WTHR.
INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) — An Indianapolis woman who suspects she and her elderly mother have been infected with coronavirus is still waiting to be contacted by state health officials – more than 72 hours after she contacted the Indiana State Department of Health’s coronavirus call center.
“I don’t understand it – not at all,” she told 13 Investigates. “They set up the call center for people like me to call and told me I’d be contacted right away, but I’m still waiting and haven’t heard a word from them. It’s disappointing.”
The woman, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation by her employer, attended a company meeting two weeks ago. That company has international offices across Europe and Asia – including in countries that have been hard hit by confirmed cases of COVID-19 – and employees who had recently visited those international offices were present at the meeting.
A week later, the woman said she woke up with a 103-degree fever, a cough and tightness in her chest. She stayed home from work to self-isolate herself from co-workers, and began to feel better by late last week. Her fears began to ease – until two events took place on Friday morning.
First, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb declared a state of emergency after learning about Indiana’s first confirmed case of coronavirus in Marion County. That same morning, the woman learned that her elderly mother had a high fever and was experiencing the same symptoms she had earlier in the week. The symptoms combined with her exposure to foreign travelers who had visited countries experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks seemed to be the type of information the ISDH would be interested in, she thought.
After all, the state’s commissioner of public health stood alongside the governor to reassure residents and to encourage them to report suspected cases of the illness.
“The situation with COVID-19 is changing rapidly and we can expect to see other cases in Indiana in the future,” Dr. Kris Box said. “We will deploy all steps needed quickly to protect Hoosiers.”
At 1:28 p.m. Friday – about three hours after the governor’s press conference – the woman contacted the ISDH coronavirus call center to report her family’s illnesses and ask for advice.
“I was at least expecting an email or a phone call to tell us what to do next, if we needed to do anything at all,” she said.
She did get an instant reply to her email. The health department sent a generic response stating “we will respond to your message soon.”
But the automated reply also said email messages to the state's coronavirus call center are monitored only during regular business hours, which it identified as 8:15 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Monday through Friday.
While the message was delivered during regular business hours, the woman says she did not get a response on Friday. Or over the weekend. Or today. Despite a sense of urgency expressed by the state health commissioner last week, Indiana’s coronavirus call center has not responded to the woman’s coronavirus tip more than 72 hours after it was received.
Over the weekend, other Hoosiers who fear they've contracted COVID-19 told 13 Investigates they could not reach the state health department either. A WTHR viewer whose wife was experiencing a high fever and other flu-like symptoms said his spouse could not get through on the coronavirus hotline phone numbers set up by ISDH.
“My wife attempted to call the state number herself. When she did, the hotline number set up specifically for COVID-19 was either unanswered or, when after hours, a recording stated to call back during normal business hours,” he said Saturday night. “She has made many multiple calls, both to the hospital [and] the state emergency numbers, without any resolution as to testing or an end to her self-quarantine…what are people to do? The government’s inability to handle, or possibly even acknowledge, this pandemic is startling.”
When WTHR called the state call center Monday afternoon, the phone rang for several minutes before a staff member offered to take a message. She did not know how long it might take to get a return phone call for callers who think they might have COVID-19 – further evidence the state health department's coronavirus response might be understaffed. The health commissioner to acknowledge that last week.
“We need resources with regard to a call center because our call center is very, very busy right now taking questions - not only from providers across the state but also from worried Hoosiers across the state that want to ask questions,” Box said Friday morning.
By Monday afternoon, the need for resources had not changed. Speaking at a press conference in Avon to discuss the latest cases of confirmed coronavirus in Indiana, the health commissioner acknowledged that extended hours for the call center and more staffing is on the way.
“From 8 [a.m.] to 8 [p.m.], it’s being staffed by a group of ten individuals taking the calls and taking information. We are adding to that call center from 8 to 8. We’re also adding shifts from 8 in the evening to 8 in the morning to get additional help,” Box said. A statement released by the ISDH late Monday afternoon says the COVID-19 call center is now being staffed around the clock, recommending that members of the public who have questions about coronavirus call their doctors rather than the call center. It is not clear what information the health department wants directed toward the call center.
Box said Monday afternoon that the call center is getting calls from “a lot of very concerned citizens,” but she insisted the system was not overwhelmed.
“No, just gearing up for what they expected,” the health commissioner said.
Those still trying to get through to the state’s coronavirus hotline and still waiting for a response from the state’s call center are skeptical.
“Why have the call center at all if they aren’t going to give help or return e-mails?” asked the Indianapolis woman still trying to report her suspected infection. “They’re giving a lot of mixed messages.”
The ISDH call center for healthcare providers and members of the public who have coronavirus concerns are asked to call 317-233-7125. The health department says that phone number is now being staffed 24 hours per day.