More than a million Kiwis called Healthline in 2020, trusting the voice at the other end of the line to explain Covid-19 and how to keep themselves and their family safe. When calls skyrocketed, more staff had to be brought on board urgently. Sophie Ryan reports.
As calls to our national telehealth service climbed 10 times above normal levels, people were sometimes waiting more than an hour to get through to a registered nurse after Covid-19 arrived in New Zealand.
Healthline chief executive Andrew Slater knew he needed to act fast to get more people on the other end of the phone and when the hand brake came on international travel in March, 300 employees from House of Travel joined Healthline to help field the calls.
Rachael Dvorsky was a manager for Orbit World Travel when she suddenly became part of the non-clinical Covid-19 response team for Healthline.
Dvorsky said calls from stressed people missing connecting flights or landing in a foreign country and their luggage elsewhere had given her team enough experience to deal with the welfare checks for people stressed about self-isolating.
"Because everything happened so fast, I was running on adrenaline a bit," Dvosrky said.
"I felt really grateful to have an opportunity when I knew a lot of people didn't. It was pretty awesome to be able to help New Zealand."
As the call volume continued to climb, Slater realised the telecommunication infrastructure would need to be scaled up.
"We had to deliver a five-month technology project in just seven days," Slater said.
A critical piece to the puzzle of how to have more capacity for calls was a server. The pandemic disrupted global supply chains for technology, but Slater managed to find the only server left of its kind in Houston, the United States.
Fortunately, he could get it into New Zealand as an urgent delivery on March 26 and the staff in call centres around New Zealand were online and able to answer inquiries.
"It made our infrastructure six times bigger," he said.
More than one million calls were answered between February and December - five times the amount answered in the same period in 2019.
Nurse Jennifer Calius was working for the telehealth service for a year before the pandemic.
Usually a dashboard would show staff that two or three people were waiting to speak to a nurse, but in 2020 sometimes that number would be in the hundreds, Calius said.
"We could see the numbers going up and you have concern about the people who are waiting, that someone who needed urgent help could be waiting."
Calius said that in January the calls about Covid-19 were mainly from people with family returning home from China. They wanted advice to keep themselves safe and limit the spread.
Things took a turn in February.
"When things started getting a bit crazy in Italy the calls started becoming more urgent. People were panicking."
Racist and abusive calls started coming in, Calius said.
"It was quite horrible. It wasn't the majority, but it was quite disturbing.
"Some people would ring to say they'd seen an Asian person sneeze in a supermarket and others would call to say they lived on a street with an Asian family and we'd have to reassure them that they were doing the right thing and isolating."
Slater told his staff they didn't have to put up with the "really shocking" racism witnessed in those early weeks of the pandemic and he wouldn't hesitate to take the call himself to give them a piece of his mind.
"The spread of misinformation in February was really disheartening for us and the team. It had undertones of racism, absolutely," Slater said.
Calius, who worked as a nurse in ICU and emergency departments of hospitals before moving into telehealth in 2018, said the camaraderie within the Healthline team during Level 4 was really important.
"It's something we always train for. You trust your colleagues can suddenly pick up a few gears and step in.
"We all felt that sense of responsibility about making sure we could speak to everyone who needed to speak to us."
Calius switched off social media during that period for her wellbeing.
"Seeing incorrect information and various comments at that time were frustrating," she said.
"A lot of the calls were starting with 'I saw this on the internet' and information was changing all the time."
"It's been scary but exciting ... From a professional perspective it's scary because you really want to give services to the people who need them, but also working together and ramping up a few gears to provide that care has been exciting."
The Ministry of Health's acting deputy director-general for health system improvement and innovation Clare Perry said Healthline has been an integral part of New Zealand's response to the virus.
"Its ability to provide people with free and accurate health advice and support, while in their own homes and to provide support for the registration and welfare checks of people in managed self-isolation and self-isolation in the community, has been an integral part of our Covid-19 response.
"It has responded to the needs of our communities, for example by working to ensure that health professionals and interpreters are available, as needed."