PEORIA - Symptoms like those caused by COVID-19 were being reported more often by callers to OSF HealthCare’s COVID-19 hotline this week.

“I think that when we first started the hotline we had a lot of ‘worried well,’ individuals seeking information and trying to understand how to protect themselves,” said Melinda Cooling, chief clinician executive at OSF St. Gabriel and an advanced practice nurse on the hotline’s management team. “Now I think we’re starting to transition. We still have a lot of those patients, but a lot more symptomatic.”

With so little COVID-19 testing being done in central Illinois, and with people being told to stay home while sick, the hotline might be the best measure of how much COVID-19 has spread in the Peoria area.

Since March 13 when the hotline went live, nearly 8,000 calls have come in. OSF’s chatbot, Clare, which also answers questions about COVID-19, has received more than 22,000 virus-related inquiries. Clare answers questions about treatment and testing and gauges how sick the caller is. Those who need to speak with a live person are sent to the hotline where they get medical advice from a nurse free of charge.

To access Clare, visit www.osfhealthcare.org. The COVID-19 helpline is (833) OSF-KNOW.

This week, when callers seemed to be sicker, OSF added a few advanced practice nurses to the staff of registered nurses taking calls.

“We have the advanced practice providers there to get on the phone with the patient and say, ‘let's talk through how you are feeling, I think you are OK, we’re gonna do this with you tonight and we are going to check on you tomorrow,’ or ‘yeah, you sound really short of breath, we think you should to to the emergency department,'” said Cooling.

Calls coming into the center, which is located in the auditorium at JUMP Simulation next to OSF HealthCare St. Francis Medical Center, come from the entire region OSF HealthCare serves. OSF has 14 hospitals, including one in Michigan and one in the Chicago suburb of Evergreen Park. There is definitely more illness in Chicago, but residents of the big city are not the only ones calling with symptoms, said Cooling.

“We are getting a fair amount (from central Illinois),” she said. “I don’t think we’ve gotten as many to the level of illness that I've heard for some of our Chicago patients.”

Cooling has heard a variety of complaints while taking calls.

“Some have low grade fevers and don’t really feel very good, and then we’ve had some patients who have high fevers, you know 103.8, and just really bad coughs,” she said. “It’s really difficult to know if it's COVID or not, but we know the virus is in our communities.”

Many patients ask to get tested, but in Illinois tests are currently only being performed on the sickest patients. For most patients, learning they have COVID-19 instead of a run-of-the-mill flu would not change their treatment. Unless it becomes severe, COVID-19 is treated with rest, hydration, and Grandma’s chicken soup, said Cooling.

“It’s the simple things. I was talking to a guy the other day and I think he had a fever, and I instructed him to take some Tylenol, and said ‘I want you to go get into bed and take a nap. That’s what your body needs, it needs rest and fluids. And then let’s see how you are feeling.”

The hotline was devised as a way to keep people from seeking care in-person during the pandemic. By staying home people are helping slow the spread of this highly infectious virus.

“Most people quite honestly don’t want to be in the ER right now. That’s one thing I think our community has done a really good job at, educating people. They know to stay home, they just need somebody to provide the confidence that they are making the right decision,” said Cooling.

Connecting with a knowledgeable, friendly person helps provides a sense of calm for patients.

“A lot of patients really just need reassurance,” said Cooling. “I talked to a mom the other night. She really was not feeling good, and she’s a single mom with three little kids. And she’s exhausted, and she honestly needed someone just to talk to.”

Some patients are being referred to OSF’s online mental health tool, SilverCloud (www.osfhealthcare.org/mental-health/resources/silvercloud/) to help them work through anxiety.

OSF is accepting anyone who calls at no charge. A file is created for every patient, so if they call back, nurses will know what advice was dispensed during the first call. And some patients get checked on in the days following their call without even asking.

“There are patients we really worry about, like that young mom I talked to the other night,” said Cooling. “I flagged her and we called her the next day.”

 

Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or lrenken@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.