Vaccination navigation: United Way's 2-1-1 has helped thousands get appointments

Since late January, a phone line in Cuyahoga County has taken more than 52,000 calls from area residents, helping most of those people register for COVID-19 vaccine appointments.

The phone line—an offshoot of United Way of Greater Cleveland’s 211 HelpLink—is easy to access: Dial 2-1-1 on your phone, then press 3. You might face a short wait, but soon you’ll be connected to a trained navigator with access to potentially hundreds of vaccination appointments in Cuyahoga County at their fingertips.

Joan SchneiderThe phone line was a big help for Rocky River resident Joan Schneider, 69, who said she had a hard time navigating the “confusing” process of finding a vaccine in Ohio back in February. Before calling 2-1-1, she tried calling or navigating the online portals for local stores and pharmacies offering vaccinations.

“I tried to get on the list for Marc’s and Giant Eagle and could never get in line, or you’d get in line and then they’d say there’s no appointments available,” she recalls.

Calling 2-1-1 made the process far easier for Schneider. She says the representative on the line got both her and her husband registered for a vaccination site at a fire station not far from their home.

The vaccine registration help line was a natural extension of the services already provided by the 2-1-1 Helplink, 2-1-1 director Franco Formichelli said, which can also connect people to nearby food banks, information on utility bill assistance and many other local services.

Formichelli says the need for the vaccine-specific line for 2-1-1 was apparent after its first day of operation.

“We got over 4,000 calls on day-one,” he says.

While there’s no solid number available on how many people have been vaccinated after having an appointment secured by 2-1-1 operators, Formichelli said the “majority” of the 52,219 calls placed to the vaccine line have led to people being vaccinated. 

“[We] have a tool that searches by a person’s address, and gets us to a handful of local pharmacies, the [Cleveland State University’s] Wolstein Center, some of the local hospitals, and also Cuyahoga County has vaccination sites at the fairgrounds and fire departments and at The Word Church,” Formichelli explains. “It brings up all vaccination sites local to that individual’s address, and then we work with them, so we ask them where they want to go.”

As of Tuesday, April 13,  about 476,000 people had received their first dose of the vaccine in Cuyahoga County. According to data provided by the Ohio Department of Health, as of April 5, about 120,000 of those doses had been administered at the state’s mass vaccination site at the Wolstein Center. However, vaccine first doses are still lagging among Black residents, with 43.18% of white Cuyahoga County residents receiving their first dose versus only 19.67% of Black residents.

Formichelli says many people calling into the 2-1-1 line had previously struggled to find an appointment—especially in February and early March when the supply of vaccine doses was still being ramped up. Plus, there’s a significant digital divide in the greater Cleveland area, with thousands of people not having regular access to internet services. Despite that divide, many pharmacies, grocery stores and even some medical providers are funneling people through online registration systems to sign up for vaccines.

Access to reliable information is another issue the phone line has tried to address, Formichelli says. Although most calls into the line have led to callers getting registered for vaccines, Formichelli says others are simply calling to get basic information about vaccinations—with specific questions about eligibility (a hot topic before Ohio opened vaccinations to everyone 16 years old or older).

A 2-1-1 HelpLink navigator helps callers with vaccination appointments as well as other services that include housing support, utility assistance and access to food.The operators on the phone line can also bring on a translator for a three-way conversation for callers who don’t speak English, says United Way spokesperson Katie Connell.

There are several other 2-1-1 phone lines with vaccine assistance components operating in Ohio, including at the United Way of Greater Cincinnati. Brain Gregg, chief communications officer, said in a late March email that Cincinnati’s vaccination helpline is specific to people 65 and older without internet access.

Despite that limit, the phone line had taken more than 10,000 calls between mid-January and late March, getting many of those seniors registered for the vaccine with Hamilton County’s health department.

Back in Cleveland, Formichelli says the vaccine line has also been getting people to vaccine sites using several transportation options. Cuyahoga County spokesperson Mary Louise Madigan says the county has provided United Way with a $250,000 fund to pay for Lyft rides to vaccine sites for those who need them.

The county approved $130,000 to staff the vaccine hotline in late January and approved an additional $70,000 to increase staffing and extend hours in mid-March. Formichelli says United Way is also fundraising to keep the hotline going once these funds run out.

There are some limits to the phone line’s helpfulness. While the normal 2-1-1 line is available 24/7, the vaccination line for most of its operation has been limited to 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays. Connell said in an email that those hours were recently extended to 6 p.m. New weekend hours (Saturday-Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) started on April 10.

Connell says there are times when the wait to talk to an operator can be up to 10 minutes (the average hold time is between one and three minutes, she says). For those who don’t want to wait, there is a call back feature. 

Schneider said her experience with 2-1-1 was quick and painless.

“I would recommend it,” she says. “The lady (operator) was very nice, and she signed me up and then she signed my husband up. We didn’t have to make two different calls.”

This story is sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative, which is composed of 20-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets including FreshWater Cleveland. Email Morris at [email protected].

Read more articles by Conor Morris.

 Conor Morris is a corps member with Report for America. Morris covered Appalachian southeast Ohio for the weekly newspaper The Athens News for six years. He reported on Athens County, but especially local government, the campus of Ohio University (his alma mater), cops and courts, and the social and economic issues facing the residents of Ohio’s poorest county. Morris helped guide The News toward two Newspaper of the Year awards in its division of the annual Ohio News Media Association Hooper Contest. Morris himself won six first-place Hooper awards for his reporting over the years, including for a story series about police and hospital failures in a sexual- assault investigation in Athens. Morris was born in Marietta, Ohio.