At the beginning of the pandemic, our nonprofit newsroom was fielding more coronavirus questions than we could handle. Traffic to our site tripled, and our phone wouldn’t stop ringing. Chicagoans were worried and confused. They needed help, and they were turning to us.
As a team that’s written thousands of stories about coronavirus and live-tweeted every related press conference, we knew we had a knowledge base to answer people’s questions. But we needed to tap it in the right way.
In summer 2020, after landing a $100,000 grant from the Facebook Journalism Project, we got to work, developing a free COVID-19 hotline where Chicagoans could call, text or email us with questions. After hiring Hotline Manager Hannah Boufford, we spent a few months conceptualizing how the hotline would run, with help from reporters across the city and Hearken.
We had three top priorities. First, it was important people without the internet could reach us. We also wanted to offer support in English and Spanish, since about a third of the city’s population is Latino. Finally, we were dedicated to offering one-on-one support so people could be matched directly with the information they were seeking.
To accomplish these goals, we hired Hillary Flores and María Marta Guzmán, our hotline specialists. Kelly Bauer, Block Club’s lead editor on coronavirus coverage, also lends her expertise to the hotline and reporters across the city help answer neighborhood-specific questions.
The free hotline, which launched in October 2020, is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday and Spanish assistance is available 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday.
While hotline staffers share the latest Centers For Disease Control and Chicago Department of Public Health guidance, if someone calls with a medical question, we advise them to consult a physician.
System-wise, the hotline operates on a shared Google Voice account, workflow is managed with a Trello board and we utilize a custom Slack channel to coordinate responses.
In 10 months, we’ve answered 890 questions in English and Spanish, helping people find where they can get tested, how they can find rent relief and where they can get vaccinated, among many other questions. Those questions have come from Chicago residents all across the city — from Rogers Park on the Far North Side to Calumet Heights on the Far South Side.
We’ve even fielded questions from across the country and internationally.
Our hotline was inspired by KPCC’s coronavirus hotline.