LATHAM, N.Y. – Nearly 100 New York National Guard Airmen and Soldiers are staffing three telephone call centers as part of New York state's response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
The Guard members are taking calls placed to New York's Novel Coronavirus Hotline, answering questions about COVID-19 at call centers in Brooklyn, Rotterdam and Schenectady. Guard Soldiers also staffed a call center in Hawthorne in the Hudson Valley for two weeks.
Along with the other unique challenges presented by the virus, taking phone calls from residents of New York is a first for the New York Guard.
Guard Soldiers and Airmen traditionally turn out in emergencies to deliver supplies, clear roads, make health and wellness checks or direct traffic. The COVID-19 response has 2,700 Guard Airmen and Soldiers undertaking new tasks like taking samples at COVID-19 testing centers and putting up a temporary hospital.
Working in the call centers is a unique mission, Maj. Gen. Timothy LaBarge, commander of the New York Air National Guard, said after visiting the Rotterdam center.
"COVID-19 is a unique situation that directly threatens our communities," said Army 1st Lt. Michel Flickinger, the officer in charge of the Schenectady call center. "Although staffing a call center is not what many of us foresaw when we joined the National Guard, it is a way for us to assist our fellow citizens and connect them with the information they need."
Soldiers assigned to the 53rd Troop Command, operating out of Camp Smith Training Site, were the first with a call center mission. The state set up a call center in the Hudson Valley Transportation Center in Hawthorne March 11.
When that call center was closed, the Soldiers who had worked at the Hawthorne center moved to the center in Rotterdam.
The call centers have seen a vast fluctuation in daily calls as new information is put out by political leaders, explained Army 1st Lt. Amanda Hart, the officer in charge of the Rotterdam call center.
"The fluctuation is usually somewhere between 5,000 (calls a day) to the highest, which was approximately 28,000," Hart said. "It is a grand total to date of approximately 260,000 calls in the past couple weeks."
The Soldiers and Airmen are not working the call centers by themselves. Around 590 people – mostly state employees who work in call centers or handle calls from home – are also answering the state's 1-888-364-3065 information number.
But the Guard call-takers have played a big part, according to state officials.
Before the Guardmembers showed up, wait times on hold to speak to someone at the call centers was over an hour, explained Army Staff Sgt. Michael Alvarez, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the Rotterdam call center.
Alvarez said they all realize how crucial the information is that the call centers are providing.
"When we first arrived and before we got started, call volumes and wait times were through the roof," Alvarez said. "As we integrated into the call center, they drastically dropped and leveled out, ensuring stress and anxiety of the public were being helped tremendously."
"Knowing test sites and areas, also guidelines on what to do if known symptoms are showing," Alvarez said. "Professionalism and honesty will end up saving lives, and I think we have been on the right path to that."
"We've made a huge impact on the call center," Hart said. "Within a couple days of getting there, we learned that the civilians that also volunteer to do this were doing 16 hour days with no day off and minimal breaks because of the high call volume."
Adding Guard members to the call centers reduced average wait times to about 6 minutes and decreased the stress of the work environment, Hart said.
Apart from providing information and guidance about COVID-19, the Guard members have found that some people just needed someone to talk to about what they're experiencing.
Flickinger said his team has adjusted to these unique circumstances in a way that gives him confidence they are ready to face whatever comes next.
For Hart, who joined the Guard after active Army service, this experience is providing a feeling he wasn't sure he would get in the National Guard.
"After having a 13-month deployment in Afghanistan on active duty, I was skeptical about going into the National Guard and not being able to participate for my country," Hart said. "But I was greatly mistaken!"
Hart said that along with the current state activation for COVID-19, she also participated in the October 2017 response to Hurricane Maria by going to Puerto Rico with elements of the New York National Guard.
"I've definitely found my new passion," Hart said. "Just because you're not overseas doesn't mean you're not giving it all that you can for your country."
The Airmen and Soldiers volunteered for state active duty for this mission.
"It's my job to volunteer and help communities, states and my country," Alvarez said. "Every time I put this uniform on, no matter how small or big the mission is, it's always about the bigger picture."
As of the end of March, New York has 2,750 personnel on missions across the state between the New York Air and Army National Guard, the New York Guard; the State Defense Force and the New York Naval Militia.
"When this is all over, I hope New York, America as a whole will be resilient as they've always been and come back stronger than ever, which we all know it will," Alvarez said. "I'm proud of everyone and every essential worker, nurses, doctors, military, everyone."