The phones at the 1669 hotline call centre in Thailand have been ringing off the hook over the new wave of the UK variant of covid-19. The new wave of the UK variant of covid-19 is by far, the deadliest wave of Covid-19 infections which began earlier this month in Thailand.
Since the new outbreak of the UK variant of covid-19, officers at the 1669 call centre have been working around the clock from concerned members of the public, seeking advice on how to care for themselves during the pandemic.
Recently, many calls have been of a desperate nature, as the coronavirus variant first found in the UK is behind the latest uptick in infections is making many people, many of them elderly, much sicker and deadlier.
With limited space to accommodate the growing number of patients at hospitals, many relatives are turning to the hotlines to look for assurance. Above all as they wait for authorities to pick up and transfer sick family members in their households to a proper treatment facility.
It is the 1669 hotline officers’ job to coordinate with medical facilities to arrange patient transfer, while at the same time soothing anxious relatives.
In each shift, 20 officers would man the phones inside the 5 meter x 15 meter room, noting patients’ conditions, addresses and coordinating with hospitals. The first question they ask is always whether there are still hospital beds available.
EMS 1669 manpower shortage
If so, they will place another call to the centre’s emergency division to have vans, converted into ambulances, collect the sick at their homes. Porntep Saeheng, director of the centre, said the Erawan Centre has operated the 1669 hotline for a long time.
It was originally opened to receive calls about general emergencies, from traffic accidents to health issues.
However, it wasn’t until recently that City Hall ordered the 1669 hotline centre to act as one of the main contact centres for those affected by Covid-19.
“We are duty-bound to locate hospitals which are ready to take in [Covid-19] patients for treatment. [Our task] is to send vehicles to bring patients to the hospital in a safe and secure manner to prevent the spread of the virus,” Dr Porntep said.
The officers manning the 1669 hotline were recruited from City Hall’s Medical Services Department, as they have the basic medical training required to run the operation. The centre, Dr Porntep said, is mainly run by full-time officers, who are also supervising part-time employees hired to make up a manpower shortage.
Before the centre was directed to take Covid-related calls, it accepted 1,500 calls each day on average. These days, Dr Porntep said, call volumes have doubled. In an average day, the centre refers around 250 emergencies to hospitals — between 5-10 of which are Covid-related cases.
While Dr Porntep admitted the centre is unable to answer all calls due to the growing number of inquiries, he maintained the call centre’s officers, who are working eight-hour shifts, are doing their best to respond to Covid-19 emergencies.
“We have the resources and manpower to refer patients [to hospitals] although this may take some time,” he said.
Hotline get many prank calls
In response to the recent spike in daily Covid-19 infections, the Ministry of Public Health and Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) have opened several emergency numbers, but callers frequently report wait-times of more than 30 minutes.
This prompted the BMA to instruct the centre to extend its hotline to accept Covid emergencies which can help ease the burden on other hotlines. The 1669 hotline, however, is known to be particularly busy from 8am to 4pm.
Generally, the centre will advise callers on what to do prior to leaving their homes for the hospital — but in cases where the patient is unable to safely bring themselves to a treatment centre, the local district office will step in as they have been authorised to transfer patients with mild symptoms.
Dr Porntep noted that not all calls require urgent action, as many came from individuals who suspect they may have caught the virus, or were merely seeking information about Covid-related symptoms.
“Unfortunately, about 20% are prank calls, which are a waste of our time,” he told the Bangkok Post.
He said people should contact 1669 only in cases of emergency, as officers are needed to help find and reserve hospital beds for Covid-19 patients.
Less urgent calls, he said, should be directed to other hotlines run by the Department of Disease Control, National Health Security Office, and Department of Medical Services. “We run a tight ship around here, and our officers are working constantly,” he said.
Responding to criticism about long waits for hospital beds, Dr Porntep said such difficulties are not out of the ordinary given the nature of the Covid-19 crisis. “It takes a bit of time to screen urgent cases from the calls,” he said.
“I’ve also reminded hotline officers to be professional in carrying out their duty, as they may come across angry callers from time to time.”
“We have to empathise with those who are in distress, and explain calmly that we are doing our best to find beds for them.”
Eight City Hall-run hospitals are taking in Covid-19 patients, according to City Hall’s Department of Medical Services.
Four of the hospitals have been designated for asymptomatic Covid-19 patients. Between them, they have a combined capacity of 1,650 beds: 1,000 beds at Bang Khunthian Hospital for the Elderly, 200 at Ratchaphiphat Hospital, 100 at Erawan 1 Hospital and 350 at Erawan 2 Hospital.
As of Friday, 717 beds in the four hospitals were occupied.