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COVID-19 hotline 211 forced to shut line down amid high call volume

More than 30 Oregon National Guard members will be answering phones in the coming days.

PORTLAND, Ore. — 211, an information referral line for health and human services in Oregon and Southwest Washington, is now a COVID-19 hotline that is overwhelmed.

"We're in unprecedented times, and our call volume reflects it," said 211info CEO Dan Herman. 

Herman said a month ago, 211 was getting 1,000 calls a day related to vaccines.

"These were typically seniors who were not internet enabled or digitally savvy," he said. "We could lend a lot of value to them."

Herman said as more and more people become eligible for the vaccine, more and more people are calling 211. Call volume is so high that 211 brought in more than two dozen Oregon National Guards members to answer phones. 

The guard members could not keep up with the demand. 

"At 6 a.m., the line opens and all of a sudden there are 600 calls in the queue, then 800 calls in the queue, then a few minutes later there are 1,000 calls in the queue," Herman said. "By 9 p.m. yesterday morning, Monday, we determined we had to shut the line down. It's bigger than us."

The same thing happened Tuesday. If you do not call 211 early in the morning, it is likely you will get a recording.

RELATED: UPDATE: National Guard helping keep 211 wait times down

"I'd encourage people to listen intently to our phone tree because there will be an option early to leave your contact information," Herman said. "If you leave that contact information, we will get back to you."

Herman said the goal is to return calls within 24 hours, but just maybe that will not be necessary for long. 

Herman said another 32 Oregon National Guards members should be answering phones by the beginning of next week. 211 is hiring new staffers on top of that, but that is not all.

"We're now pulling in people who have been doing contact tracing at other community benefit organizations and training them on how to answer and take vaccine calls."

Herman understands the frustration with calling 211 and not getting a real person. He urges patience.

"I feel like we're throwing a lot at it," he said. "I know that doesn't solve for a lot of people trying us, but know we're putting best efforts into this."

RELATED: Oregon National Guard deployed as power outages persist a week after winter storm