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Suffolk County 311 operators field thousands of coronavirus calls

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone answers a call

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone answers a call at the Suffolk 311 Call Center in Hauppauge on March 13, 2020. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Suffolk’s 311 call center, launched a year ago largely so residents could more easily report potholes and other quality of life concerns, has become one of Suffolk’s main avenues for connecting residents to coronavirus-related resources, county officials said.

Since Suffolk's first known COVID-19 case in March, 311 call operators have answered more than 47,000 calls, many of them seeking information about COVID-19 testing locations and food banks, officials said. They have distributed free face coverings to about 10,000 seniors who requested them. One call operator even sent a Panera delivery to a family without food.

“It’s really been used in every aspect of the COVID response,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said. “This is an invaluable tool for government.”

Suffolk became the first county in the state to add a 311 service when it launched its service on May 28, 2019, officials said. New York City has instituted a service, but Nassau hasn't.

Bellone said then he wanted to track constituent concerns and provide a central number for residents to call for information, request services and lodge complaints. He said he also wanted to relieve pressure on the 911 emergency system, which handles about 900,000 calls a year, including for tens of thousands of nonemergencies.

Call operators, working five days a week, answered a total of about 20,000 calls in the service's first nine months, officials said. Most were from residents complaining about potholes and road conditions or seeking information about Civil Service exams, police tests and amenities at county beaches and parks, 311 manager Evita Marrow said. 

In early March, 311 received its first coronavirus-related call, from a doctor’s office with a patient with COVID-19 symptoms, Marrow said. The call operators patched the caller through to the county Health Department’s communicable disease nurses.

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“Little by little we were receiving phone calls about one case. Then there’s three cases, and unfortunately it took Suffolk County by storm,” Marrow said.

Call operators began fielding questions on COVID-19 symptoms, where to get tested and how to access health department letters stating they needed to quarantine. They offered guidance on essential businesses and explained the latest executive orders from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on what businesses are essential and what gatherings were allowed.

Bellone, a Democrat, also began urging residents to call 311 to report businesses that were not complying with the governor’s Pause order, connect with the county's new small business recovery unit and access food bank, mental health and domestic violence resources.

Officials running the service expanded operating hours to seven days a week, brought in staff from other departments to handle phones and hired three office assistants, including two Spanish speakers. Calls spiked to more than 16,000 calls a month and, in the first full year of operation, totaled 66,487, an official said. 

Babylon Town's 311 has had a similar spike in calls as residents sought information about accessing unemployment benefits and the federal Payroll Protection Program, said town Supervisor Richard Schaffer, the county's Democratic Party chairman. The town call center has begun connecting residents directly to state lawmakers, the U.S. Small Business Administration's Long Island office and Suffolk 311 when issues are outside the town's jurisdiction, he said.

"It's worked out real well," Schaffer said of the town and county 311 services. 

Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart called the county 311 line “invaluable.” She said “the ability of 311 operators to field certain nonemergency and COVID-19-related calls, allows for our emergency complaint operators to be available for emergency calls, improving public safety.” 

Even county officials who initially were skeptical about the cost and usefulness of the service acknowledged its value during the pandemic. The budget for the service was expected to be about $560,000. 

Legislative Minority Leader Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) said while the service may be less useful when the pandemic ends, “I certainly did not expect that 311 would be as critical a tool as it has become during this health crisis. Clearly it has been an asset to our residents during this time.”

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