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Meet one man answering COVID-19 vaccine hotline questions

Colorado’s vaccine hotline has been activated for about two weeks. One man describes what it's like being the voice on the other end of the phone.

COLORADO, USA — Two weeks ago, Colorado launched a new COVID-19 vaccine hotline to answer questions from the public.

The hotline number is 1-877-CO VAX CO (1-877-268-2926).

Thousands of Coloradans call that hotline every day, creating long wait times and a need to add more people to the team answering those phone calls.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) said the state has a team of 266 call agents. As of Friday, 150 of those agents are working simultaneously, at any given time, 24/7. The state plans to scale that up to 200 agents available 24 hours a day by next week.

RELATED: CDPHE launches hotline to provide COVID-19 vaccine information

One of those call center agents is Garret Steward.

“The number one question I get is, ‘Where do I go to get the vaccine?’” Steward said.

“Or, ‘I’m eligible to sign up for the vaccine, so how do I get it?’”

Steward works with Maximus, a company that partnered with the state to staff the hotline with call center agents.

Agents can answer various questions, including the ones about the vaccine's safety and efficacy, where to register for an appointment and Colorado’s vaccine phases.

“I can’t schedule a vaccine for you today, and I can’t tell you someplace to go right now to get a vaccine. That’s the hard part,” Steward said. “But I can help you get on the list, so a provider for the state will contact you and get you scheduled to get a vaccine.”

Like many other jobs, this one is a remote-work environment. Steward works from his Colorado home, answering the phone from 10:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily.

“I’ve just turned my living room and kitchen into an office. I even ordered a little water cooler just for fun!” he joked.

Credit: Garret Steward
Garret Steward added a water cooler to his home office "just for fun."

Like many other Coloradans, the pandemic forced Steward to pivot.

“I was a handyman before I did this. [Work] slowed down a little bit during the wintertime, and I was starting to struggle a bit with work, finding it," he said. The offer came up to this work from home call center so, I thought I’d try my hand at it. And it’s a really meaningful job. That’s a really nice aspect to doing this. It’s a job helping people, and it's doing some good.”

"Some calls are especially memorable," Steward said.

“There are some folks that are very afraid, very worried, or had a very personal experience with COVID19, lost somebody close to them,” he said. “It’s always very touching, and it's sometimes a little bit heartbreaking. But I try to do everything I can to help them. Sometimes people just need you to listen.”

The biggest challenge with the call center so far, the state said, "is managing the volume." CDPHE said the hotline receives about 5,000 calls every day.

As of Thursday, Feb. 4, CDPHE said the average wait time was about 30 minutes. That includes both the call-in line or a callback.

More specifically:

- Calls to agents (English): 14 minutes, 55 seconds

- Calls to agents (Spanish): 3 minutes, 25 seconds

 -Callbacks (English): 39 minutes, 13 seconds

- Callbacks (Spanish): 27 minutes, 35 seconds

Earlier this week, 9NEWS found even longer wait times – 200 minutes or longer. State leaders addressed those challenges during the Connecting Colorado town hall hosted by 9NEWS this week.

“Two hundred minutes, one hundred minutes – let me just say, that’s completely unacceptable,” said Governor Jared Polis. “We would love to get it down to 10 minutes on average. I also want to make a point to people, if you’re able to sign up online, please do sign up online and save those phone lines for somebody who’s having trouble.”

Polis pointed to the increase in staffing planned this week and next, which the state hopes will help better handle that volume.

“We are continuing to scale our call center as rapidly as we can,” said the state’s COVID-19 Incident Commander, Scott Bookman. “We know we need to answers peoples’ questions, help them navigate the system in the best way possible. We’re thrilled, so many Coloradans want to get this vaccine as rapidly as they do. And we are scaling to meet their needs every single day.”

Of the 266 call agents currently working for the hotline, CDPHE says 97 are working from out-of-state. CDPHE said all agents get the same training through Maximus, which is provided with the same materials by Colorado's state.

Some call agents work full-time, others work part-time or staggered shifts. Steward said every call he answers takes as long as necessary for each caller.

“When I get to your call, it’s important to me that I treat that seriously and that I pay attention to your needs, specifically,” Steward said. “Sometimes, that can take some time. So a call takes as long as it takes, although we try to be efficient.”

As busy as the job can be, Steward said he is proud to do the work.

“It’s been an honor to play a small part in, what I view, is a historical effort by the world to end the pandemic," Steward said. "It’s been really exciting to be a little piece of that.”

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