The pace of calls to the hotline, at (850) 892-8392, has picked up since Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday announced a statewide stay-at-home order scheduled to take effect at 12:01 a.m. Friday.

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DEFUNIAK SPRINGS — A Walton County Emergency Management Agency hotline for people with questions about COVID-19, the serious respiratory illness caused by the spreading new coronavirus, has taken hundreds of calls since it was established in mid-March, according to Louis Svehla, the county’s public information officer.

And according to Svehla, the pace of calls to the hotline, at (850) 892-8392, has picked up since Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday announced a statewide stay-at-home order scheduled to take effect at 12:01 a.m. Friday.

"We don’t offer health advice," Svehla stressed. Instead, he said, much of the work of the hotline staff involves rumor control, mostly in regard to a county emergency declaration and other local and state governmental actions addressing the spread of the new coronavirus.

"What I’m very surprised at is the misinformation" evident in questions posed to hotline personnel, Svehla said.

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The hotline began taking calls March 16, the same day that Walton County commissioners declared a local state of emergency. That declaration came the day after the first positive test for COVID-19 was reported in Walton County. As of late Thursday morning, there were 18 cases of COVID-19 reported in the county.

Provisions of the emergency declaration were designed to limit large gatherings in the county, and to limit contact between the county government and the public as a means of slowing the spread of COVID-19.

In its first week of operation, the hotline took 131 calls, Svehla said. From March 23 through Tuesday, the hotline took 195 calls, he said.

But, Svehla added, the actual number of calls routed to or through the hotline likely boosts those numbers by about a third. That’s because some calls initially placed to the county’s emergency dispatching office are subsequently routed to the hotline, but not recorded as hotline calls.

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The hotline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but is only answered in the county’s Emergency Operations Center between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. During the night and early morning hours, the calls are routed to Panhandle 211 (dial 211 to connect), a help line serving Walton and Okaloosa counties.

The nature of calls to the hotline has changed during its more than two weeks in operation, according to Svehla. Initially, he said, many callers wanted to know, "How is the county going to handle this (coronavirus outbreak)?"

Also initially, he said, callers had questions about their own health, telling hotline personnel things like, "I’ve had a little fever, and I’m coughing a lot." In those instances, callers are directed to call their personal physician or steered to other professional medical resources,, Svehla said.

More recently, according to Svehla, callers have been wanting to know whether they can go to the beaches along the county’s 26-mile shoreline. And, he said, the hotline also has taken calls from people who have second homes in the area wondering if they are allowed into the county.

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The hotline began with a single person taking calls in the county’ emergency operations center, but now as many as three people, including Svehla, may be staffing the phones at any one time.

And if Svehla answers the phone, callers can count on hearing two words from him as the call ends.

Those words, Svehla said, are "Stay safe."

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