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Six months after it was created, COVID-19 phone line stays hot in Okaloosa County

Tony Judnich
Northwest Florida Daily News

FORT WALTON BEACH – Almost half a year after it was established, the Florida Department of Health-Okaloosa County COVID-19 information line continues to buzz along with hundreds of calls per day.

From 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, county residents, visitors and the general public can call the line at 1-850-344-0566 for answers to questions about the disease and details on testing sites and test results.

More:PHOTOS: COVID-19 drive through testing site in Crestview (06.25.20)

The call center for the information line was established in March, at the onset of the coronavirus crisis.

“It varies, but we can get anywhere from 300 to 700 calls a day,” Allison McDaniel, state DOH-Okaloosa County public information officer, said Friday. “It’s been pretty steady in the hundreds” each day since the center began operating.

Personnel from Okaloosa County's Emergency Medical Services and Public Health Department handle a COVID-19 test sample at a drive through testing facility set up at the Crestview Community Center earlier this year.

So far, most callers have called to schedule a test for COVID-19 or find out the next scheduled testing date, McDaniel said.

A recorded greeting on the information line notifies callers that details on scheduled community drive-thru testing locations and times are available at www.healthyokaloosa.com, which is the state DOH-Okaloosa County website.

Next week, the free testing will be offered from 8-10:30 a.m. Tuesday at the main campus of Northwest Florida State College, 1001 E. College Blvd. Niceville.

It also will be available from 8-10:30 a.m. Thursday at the college’s campus at 1170 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in Fort Walton Beach.

No appointment is needed for the drive-thru testing, which is available for all ages with or without symptoms.

According to the COVID-19 information line, people should allow up to seven to 10 days to receive test results, which might be delayed because of lab capacity issues.

Currently, the health department has about 40 to 50 employees who answer calls on the information line. Some of these workers also handle other duties, McDaniel said.

On July 21, the County Commission agreed to use federal CARES Act money to pay the $2.2 million cost of adding temporary personnel to the health department to help battle the coronavirus crisis.

The money will pay for 69 positions, including 22 registered nurses or epidemiologists, 20 call center staff members and two call center team leaders, each of whom are expected to work through the end of this calendar year.

“This personnel request is predicated on responding to 60 new infections per day, on average, as well as performing and managing up to 2,440 COVID-19 diagnostic tests per week,” state DOH-Okaloosa County Director Karen Chapman said in a July 13 letter to County Administrator John Hofstad.

The hiring of the additional staff is still ongoing, and it probably will be a couple of more weeks before the supplemented call center is up and running, McDaniel said Friday.