This is fourth and final part of our multi-part series exploring Distress Centre’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, one year after we first activated our business continuity plan and went remote for the safety of our staff and volunteers.

This story looks at the response of 211 Calgary. Please be aware of our “Dos” and “Don’ts” when using any data from this story.

211 Alberta – Calgary and Area is operated by Distress Centre. 211 staff respond to calls, chats and text and connect people with the right resource for their issue.

The lead up and going remote

In the first months of 2020, conversations and stress about the new coronavirus were quickly ramping up. Distress Centre’s 211 team responded to the first COVID-19 related contact in early March and demand for 211 was already increasing. DC was busy ensuring 211 staff were armed with the right information to respond to growing inquiries about COVID-19.

img description: A large empty room filled with cubicles and chairs.

The Distress Centre contact centre sits empty in March 2020 after we took our operations fully remote in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is not our first time dealing with a disaster, but it is our first time as a community as a whole dealing with a disaster on this global scale,” said Jerilyn Dressler, Executive Director at Distress Centre. “We had experience with H1N1, the flood and For McMurray wildfires. We were able to look back at what we did during those times and to leverage our learning and experience with the new information.”

We made the decision to close the Distress Centre office and were fully remote by March 18th, 2020.

“We did a gradual approach where we had some staff in the office and then we had some online so that we could do that transfer over and do any troubleshooting,” said Chloé McBean, who was 211 Program Manager at this time (she left Distress Centre in November 2020).

Chloé said that although this was a hectic time for the 211 team, overall the process of going remote went well and there was no disruption to services.

Unlike our crisis program, which brought back a limited number of staff and volunteers to our contact centre starting in June 2020, the 211 team has remained completely remote since the start of the pandemic. Having the 211 team work remotely means less people are physically in our contact centre, lowering the risk of an outbreak occurring at our office.

Ensuring accurate data

In the early days of the pandemic especially, information was changing quickly as organizations adapted or suspended their services in response to the pandemic. It was important that this information stayed up-to-date so that our 211 Community Resource Specialists had accurate information to share with service users.

The foundation of our 211 service is the comprehensive online database of community resources that Community Resource Specialists access to provide information to service users. In Calgary, this database is maintained by Distress Centre’s Community Resource Database team.

Since information was changing so rapidly in March 2020, the CRD team moved temporarily to shift work so that the database was being updated seven days a week and 211 staff and the 211 website had accurate information at all times.

Ever increasing demand

Increasing demand for services became a common theme in 211’s pandemic response. From January 26th to December 31st, 2020, there was a 72% increase in 211 contacts, compared to the same time period the year before. The demand increase has continued into 2021. From January 26th 2020 to February 28th, 2021, 35.4% of 211 contacts were COVID-19 related.

img text: 49,607 211 calls, chat and texts from January 26, 2020 to February 28, 2021. 35.4% of 211 contacts were related to COVID-19. img des: Icons showing a phone, speech bubbles and a cellphoneAt the start of the pandemic, the majority of the questions coming from the community were health-related: what restrictions are there? Where can someone get tested? 211 acted as a support to Health Link 811 who were working to upgrade their infrastructure at this time to handle increased demand.

In July, the government introduced their “Masks for Albertans” program. Albertans began contacting 211 for information about this program and the demand was so high that it overloaded our capacity for response.

“211’s significance and relevance in the community was elevated during the pandemic,” said Sangeeta Sharma, the current 211 Program Manager, noting that 211 was also a referral point for the isolation hotels program.

We saw another large spike in demand in February 2021, following the rollout of the provincial vaccine program. 211 is connecting Albertans with transportation resources if they need help getting to their vaccine appointments.

The increased demand put stress on the 211 system and additional pressure on 211 staff to respond, but a strength of our 211 program and Distress Centre overall, is our ability to adapt and pivot to a changing situation.

[edgtf_blockquote text=””If 211’s purpose is to be able to connect people with needs to the resources that can meet them, that’s always going to change, especially during a disaster, and that’s what 211 does very well.” – Chloé McBean” title_tag=”h2″ width=””]

“As long as staff have accurate information, they’ll be okay.” Chloé said. “If 211’s purpose is to be able to connect people with needs to the resources that can meet them, that’s always going to change, especially during a disaster, and that’s what 211 does very well.”

211 in the community

2020 was a year for growth of 211. All contact modes (phone, text and chat) became available 24/7 in 2020. In July, 211 became available province-wide. In October 2020, 211 became available across Canada.

Through 211 Alberta, Distress Centre was grateful to receive funding through the Government of Alberta’s COVID-19 response grants, which allowed us to increase capacity for both 211 and our crisis program.

img text: 72% increase in 211 contacts from January 26 - December 31, 2020, compared to the same time period in 2019

Demand for 211 has continued to increase in 2021. 211 contacts increased by 74% in January and 95% in February compared to the same time in 2020. It is important to note that that increase cannot be attributed entirely to the COVID-19 pandemic.

211 was fortunate to collaborate with government and community services throughout the pandemic to best support service users. One example of that partnership occurred early in our pandemic response. 211 has partnered with carya since 2017 to provide the 403-SENIORS line. In March 2020, carya redeployed some of their staff to answer the line to provide 211 with some extra capacity. It was a huge help to us.

211’s critical role in the community becomes clear when a disaster occurs.

“It’s happened before with the wild fires and the floods, where 211 says ‘this is what we’re here for, this is where we thrive,’” said Chloé. “It really became evident how 211 is used because a lot of organizations had to shut and say ‘just call 211.’ 211 makes the community a better place, especially in times of disaster.”

Basic Needs Fund

Distress Centre’s Basic Needs Fund (BNF) program is administered through 211 and provides one-time funding for emergency needs. When the pandemic first unfolded, we were surprised when the anticipated increase in requests for funding did not materialize. BNF was quiet for the first few months of the pandemic, but that was short lived, resulting in a 68% increase in funds distributed by the BNF program in 2020. We were able to meet this demand with the help of SORCe – the Financial Empowerment staff person from SORCe assisted BNF while that program was suspended, as it is an in-person service.

During the pandemic, the program has been able to provide financial assistance to support those at risk of homelessness to give them more time to apply to CERB, Alberta Works and other supports to prevent them from losing housing.

Long-term response

As 211 continues forward with pandemic response, supporting our staff remains a top priority. As the world experienced COVID-19 and the stress and uncertainty that came with it, so too did our staff. Distress Centre needs to ensure that support is in place for our staff to minimize burn-out and prioritize self-care and a community of care.

211 is poised and prepared to continue responding to the ongoing pandemic situation, by connecting people to services and resources with up-to-date and accurate information.

“211 will continue to be a critical part of our city and province’s pandemic response,” said Sangeeta Sharma. Sangeeta also noted that 211 can provide valuable data for policy makers and planners to help with ongoing and future pandemic response.

Distress Centre is here for Calgarians through this difficult time. If you need help, we are here to listen. To support Distress Centre’s work, donate or apply to volunteer.

Thank you for reading our COVID-19: 1 Year Later series!