Under normal circumstances, it can be frightening for immigrants to ask for help. A language barrier and fears of deportation – even without cause – are major deterrents. Now add in a global pandemic and a resource shutdown.

To respond to this need, Catholic Charities’ Esperanza Center has instituted a dedicated, large-scale hotline to provide answers and resources for non-English-speaking individuals in Baltimore City, and Baltimore and Anne Arundel Counties.

The hotline is funded through a grant from the Baltimore Community Foundation, and operated in partnership with Johns Hopkins’ Centro Sol. This strong coalition will allow more people to receive vital information from the Esperanza Center. If the center cannot address a concern directly, its staff can connect the caller to other resources, services or organizations.

Proactive response

The center, whose health clinic and several other services are operating by teleconference, had not received a heavy load of COVID-19-related questions when it launched the hotline. But Program Director Matthew Dolamore said he expected that to change quickly – and the emergence of symptoms will likely coincide with high unemployment and a mounting sense of anxiety.

“We’re talking about a largely uninsured population. The only option, other than us, is really the emergency departments,” Dolamore said. “We don’t want to overwhelm an already overwhelmed health system with folks who don’t need to be there.”

The hotline is part of the center’s agile and innovative response to a challenging moment in health care. Beginning on March 17, Esperanza moved to a remote-care model, using a dedicated phone line to receive all patient calls and direct them appropriately – whether they needed to speak with a clinician, refill prescriptions, check on lab tests, or manage paperwork.

The center will maintain that line, but anticipates a growing focus on the coronavirus. Dolamore explained that the trust Esperanza has earned within the local immigrant community, the bilingual capacity of its staff, and its close relationships with Johns Hopkins position it uniquely to provide support.

“We’re expecting there to be a fairly high volume related to COVID-19 questions, and we’re fairly certain the information received in Spanish is limited.”

All Esperanza Center programs are able to serve any non-English speaking New American using a language line service. There will also be a list of volunteer interpreters who speak various languages.

Uncommon preparation

The Esperanza team is also unusually well positioned to work remotely. Following a massive fire next to its Fells Point site in September 2018, the center scrambled to reestablish its services in new ways and new locations. Most staff members now have laptops, and have been able to work from home during the pandemic response.

The hotline itself is modeled on call centers Catholic Charities uses to support senior services and human resources, said Mike Gross, the agency’s chief of information technology.

The technological framework became possible only after Catholic Charities moved a few years ago from a patchwork of phone systems to an integrated cloud-based system that can expand quickly to respond to pressing needs. Staff can answer and triage calls from their homes as long as they have an internet connection.

“The decisions and investments the agency made about four years ago are what allow us to come to scale in this way,” Gross said.

The hotline number is 667-600-2314.