South Africa: 'Overwhelming' Student Response to Man COVID-19 Hotline

Over 100 student members of the University of Cape Town's (UCT) Faculty of Health Sciences student societies have volunteered to man the COVID-19 hotline at the Tygerberg Hospital Disaster Management Centre.

Tygerberg Hospital is one of nine provincial centres identified for the isolation and treatment of patients infected with the coronavirus.

The response from students has been "overwhelming", said president of the faculty's UCT Surgical Society, Savannah Verhage, a fifth-year medical student with plans to become a paediatric surgeon who has been coordinating the volunteers from the various faculty student societies. They have been classified as emergency medical personnel and have permits that allow them to travel to and from the centre during the lockdown period.

The UCT Surgical Society is a student-driven society affiliated with the Department of Surgery at Groote Schuur Hospital and has over 400 members. It's open to all UCT students with an interest in surgery, medical research and leadership.

"Volunteering for the COVID-19 hotline and offering support where it's needed is our way of assisting our country in a time of crisis," said Verhage.

Growing need

That need for support has escalated. Since the shutdown at midnight on 26 March, the volunteers have been handling a rising number of hotline calls from the public, reflecting high levels of anxiety.

The students work 12-hour shifts; between 07:00 and 19:00 or between 19:00 and 07:00.

"It has been heart-warming to see how many students are willing to give up their time to volunteer for 12-hour shifts."

The call for UCT Surgical Society volunteers to man the COVID-19 hotline came from UCT's Professor Lee Wallis of the Disaster Management Centre. Students were then trained how to take a thorough medical history over the phone using a COVID-19-focused questionnaire and, if required, to refer callers to the appropriate level of care for further management.

"We were honoured to be given the opportunity to play our part in serving the community," said Verhage. "At first it was only members of the Surgical Society that were involved; however, as the number of COVID-19 cases started to climb, I contacted other societies on our medical campus and got their student members on board too.

"It has been heart-warming to see how many students are willing to give up their time to volunteer for 12-hour shifts during this trying time."

More volunteers needed

Verhage anticipates that in the weeks to come the Disaster Management Centre will require more volunteers to assist as the pandemic reaches its peak.

Her task is not a small one. As head of this project from the UCT students' side, she liaises with the Disaster Management team daily to find out how many student volunteers they require for the shifts and then ensures that they have the numbers to man the hotline.

"My hope is that ... we will also become a beacon of hope to the rest of the world."

"I'm responsible for recruiting volunteers, communicating any updates or announcements with the volunteers, drawing up the shift rosters, organising the travel permits during the lockdown period and liaising with the doctors on a daily basis to ensure that we are meeting the call centre's needs and rendering assistance and support where needed."

The effects of COVID-19 on society will be far reaching, but Verhage praised government for "quickly and radically" reacting to the COVID-19 crisis in South Africa.

"My hope is that these attributes will not only hold us in good stead going forward and help us to minimise the number of fatal infections in our country but that we will also become a beacon of hope to the rest of the world by demonstrating to them how a situation like this can be appropriately managed."

Surreal experience

Nonetheless, it's been a surreal experience, she said.

"No one ever expects to be involved in a pandemic of this magnitude during their own lifetime. However, a crisis like this serves to remind us of just how vital proper preparation and early intervention is if the crisis is to be averted. It also demonstrates how every person in South Africa has an important and essential role to play if we are to effectively beat COVID-19."

"A crisis like this serves to remind us of just how vital proper preparation and early intervention is."

Volunteer Isabel Kim is doing a BMedSci (honours), an intercalated programme that will see her return to the fourth-year MBChB programme next year. Manning the hotline isn't only about taking phone calls and answering questions, but also about being able to talk people through their fears.

For Kim, the most challenging part is knowing how many are at risk, especially the large numbers of immunocompromised people living with HIV and tuberculosis, and in poverty - and the injustices of access to quality healthcare.

"We know that the majority can't access private care," she said.

"This is a very scary time. It's something no one saw coming or could prepare for. It's also bringing a lot of uncertainty about [our] academic years, the future of many countries and the economic state globally."

But there are also positives, and the most rewarding part of the work is putting people at ease.

"People have been connecting with their neighbours. It's given people time to reflect on their lives and get some quality time with family members."

Her message is, "Don't lose hope."

"China and Korea are examples that there is hope at the end. Play your part. Stay at home. And keep those on the workforce of essential services in your heart."

First-hand learning

Fourth-year student Zaahidah Razzak has welcomed the opportunity to play a meaningful role in the crisis, contributing to a team that's tackling what will become one of the world's biggest health crises and lessening the strain on the healthcare sector.

"It's also an opportunity to reach the public and educate them with facts, provide reassurance and help.

"In South Africa, we struggle with issues of poor health education and [a large number of people] don't have access to the internet and, as a result, little access to information. We get dozens of calls a day [expressing] fears based on misinformation ... and people needing reassurance that they or their friends and family don't have COVID-19 symptoms."

The 12-hour shifts can be taxing, with not much break time. Each volunteer takes between 20 and 40 calls a shift - up to 500 calls to the centre every shift - and dealing with some callers requires resolve.

"Some callers are disrespectful and rude and abuse our willingness to listen."

Having been at the centre from the start, Razzak has gained invaluable experience of protocol and policy changes.

"Over the three weeks I've volunteered, I've learnt first-hand how the COVID-19 case definition has evolved."

Committed to help

First-year student and volunteer Camryn Ferns said she'd signed up for the hotline as soon as she received the call from the Surgical Society.

"[Helping] is what I've committed to doing for the rest of my life. After the president's first speech, I felt useless. I didn't feel I was contributing as much as I would have liked to during this time. I was witnessing a worldwide apocalypse unfold and felt like there was nothing I could do to help. So, when we got the email to volunteer, I jumped at the opportunity.

"Although it's not on the frontline, even comforting panicked callers is satisfying. The most rewarding part of the work is when I'm able to confidently reassure a patient that all will be okay."

COVID-19 has changed her outlook and perhaps even her future career, she said.

"I have seen myself going into research around infectious diseases and controlling disasters. COVID-19 has seriously accelerated my desire. I'm privileged to be part of a community that is trying to make a difference, and I hope that I'm able to share this experience with my own family one day."

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