PITTSFIELD — One nurse sat in scrubs, using a headset to help an asthmatic patient get medication that could help protect the lungs if the coronavirus, too, settles in.
Large bottles of hand sanitizer sat between computers set up on Berkshire Medical Center's sixth floor during a visit from The Eagle on Thursday afternoon. Another nurse gently advised a caller to isolate from a loved one who was showing symptoms.
Since the coronavirus hotline's launch on March 8, the call center had taken 3,376 calls. Some 240 of those calls resulted in telehealth appointments with doctors, meaning doctors assessed patients' symptoms remotely using videoconferencing, which protects medical staff and patients from possible exposure.
Call volume began to overwhelm the new center last week, Berkshire Health Systems Media Relations Director Michael Leary said — the center received 360 calls in one day alone, and the average call length grew longer — and so the team expanded to meet the demand.
Six nurses at a time answer calls made to the hotline, available all week long at 855-262-5465 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. One or both supervisors also staff the center each day. Those supervisors are Katie Henault, a nursing director for BHS, and Tracy DiSilva, trauma program manager.
"We started in this little room," DiSilva said, pointing to an oversized cubicle area. "We quickly outgrew that."
The call center helps medical professionals assess from a safe distance who needs testing and treatment. Most people who contract the coronavirus can recover at home.
About 12 percent of coronavirus cases in the U.S. were severe enough to result in hospitalization as of March 16, according to a new report issued Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The new data also show hospitalizations are not limited to the elderly.
State and federal guidelines surrounding coronavirus care and treatment can change day to day, and so Leary said hospital leaders send an updated checklist up daily to nursing staff in the center. They use this "triage tool" to assess a patient's symptoms and level of risk, which goes up with age, and also increases for first responders and front-line health care providers.
Testing capacity does not factor into the triage process, Leary said, though patients might have to wait a day or two in order to get tested based on available resources.
Systemwide, Leary said BHS is bracing for a surge, postponing elective treatments in order to free up hospital beds and staff. Staff freeing up in other areas of the hospital system are helping with the hotline, which now pulls from a 100-nurse pool.
Leary said the hospital system established a command center on March 7, the day that leaders learned of the hospital's first coronavirus case. They launched the hotline the following day, on March 8.
They built the call center using an existing framework, as the hospital already had a hotline (855-BMC-LINK) to help people navigate the health care system.
Call center leaders said staff often hears from asymptomatic people — "the worried well," as they're known in the medical community — who have questions and concerns about the virus and whether or not they were exposed.
"I think there's a lot of anxiety in the community about that," DiSilva said, noting "it's natural to feel that way."
And, Henault said, "there's a lot of questions about how do I keep my family safe."
"I think it's a lot of education," DiSilva said.
Lately, the center is receiving calls from residents who live with a family member who has tested positive, and they are wondering how to protect the rest of the family. "The numbers of those are increasing," Henault said.
For these families, nurses advise them to "live together separately" as much as possible. Use separate towels, and if possible, a separate bedroom and bathroom.
Leary said people in the community have also used the hotline to call in with information about extra masks and protective gear, which is appreciated given national shortages.
Earlier Thursday, handwritten signs of gratitude had been plastered on glass doors surrounding Berkshire Medical Center.
"Grateful for BMC employees," one said.
"Thank you for showing up today," said another.
Amanda Drane can be contacted at email@example.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-464-2859.