Within this series of news articles, EUREGHA takes the opportunity to highlight actions taken by our members to tackle the Covid-19 outbreak.

Managing the Covid-19 outbreak via the ‘1450’ health advice hotline in Lower Austria

From one day to the next, normality in (Lower) Austria changed drastically. From the beginning of March, harsh restrictions on individual movement, in some regions quarantine, mandatory closings of businesses under the guiding principle of “social distancing” were put into place to mitigate the spreading of the coronavirus and to “flatten the curve”. All the action is taken to ensure the functionality of the health care system. To manage the Covid-19 outbreak, the information for citizens who felt ill had to be structured in a secure and quick way.

The Austrian Federal Government and responsible authorities immediately communicated that in case someone is having genuine symptoms of the coronavirus (like high temperature, cough and a shortness of breath) the individual must stay at home and call the ‘1450’ health hotline to receive information on the next steps (diagnosis and testing).

The ‘1450’ health advise hotline

The 1450 health advise hotline was developed in 2017 by “Notruf Niederösterreich” (NNOe), the emergency command & control centre owned by the federal state of Lower Austria. The hotline was intended to be a single point of contact for citizens to receive quick and unbureaucratic health advice. Only qualified medical personnel, ECNS certified nurses, take the calls. In 2019, the free-of-charge 24/7 hotline was launched throughout Austria. It was the aim of ‘1450’ and NNOe to act as a ‘gatekeeper’ and direct the caller to the proper “point of care”.

Notruf Niederösterreich – Emergency  Command & Control Centre of Lower Austria

The “1450” hotline for Lower Austria, Carinthia and Burgenland is managed and operated by NNOe. The organisation is responsible to process calls for more than a quarter of the Austrian population. Since many years now, the organisation developed progressive approaches of decentralised working which was vital to be able to cope with the rapid increase of incoming calls during the Covid-19 outbreak.

Decentralised working means that all employees, including “classic” control centre personnel (e.g. call centre agents, emergency medical dispatchers, emergency community nurses (ECN)) and back-office personnel, are able to work from home with their specially provided technical equipment to dispatch calls. All calls are answered and processed in the same manner, namely following a sophisticated and internationally tested query. In case of sudden events (e.g. major incidents, technical problems or a pandemic), employees receive notifications to log in to the dispatch system and help handle the volume of calls. In this way, additional personnel resources are available within minutes to dispatch emergency calls independently from the location of the call taker.

Gatekeeping the Covid-19 outbreak

The Federal Government decided from the first day of the outbreak that the 1450 health hotline was the contact point for citizens who feel they are suffering genuine symptoms of the new coronavirus. The caller volume of the hotline skyrocketed in the following, as the graphic beneath demonstrates. Compared to the same period of the previous year, the number of calls increased by a factor of 25.

It is evident that a peak of calls occurred after press conferences of the Federal Government and other events (e.g. press report on first Covid-19 death). The highest number of requests via the ‘1450’ hotline was registered on 16 March 2020. Between 6am and 9pm over 4.000 calls were processed by professional call-takers. The initial assessment was adapted to the new situation and all cases are now filtered based on whether there is a suspected Covid-19 infection or not.

If a caller fulfils the criteria to be a ‘suspected Covid-19 patient’, a mobile smear tester is dispatched for the person and the data is forwarded to the responsible health authority. In Austria, the district administrative authority is responsible for further decisions in case of a pandemic. The public health officer then decides whether the person is subject to traffic restrictions or any other contact person has to undergo a Covid-19 test.

To strengthen the process, not only the entire back-office staff was put into service, a number of ECNs and doctors were immediately deployed, and also almost 50 students were recruited as so-called Covid-Calltaker at short notice to handle the calls. On top of that, necessary hardware for additional home office workstations were installed and the technical and service personnel was staffed up to ensure the secure the smooth function of the NNOe emergency communication centre.

The NNOe emergency communication centre was able to cope with all occurring technical, organisational and structural challenges related to Covid-19 and thereby achieved the goal of being completely independent from external forces. The Covid-19 outbreak in Austria slowly eases and the the effective reproduction number decreased below 1, which was the aim of all mitigation measures taken.

More, validated information on Covid-19 an Notruf Niederösterreich can be found at www.notrufnoe.at

Current figures of the development of Covid-19 in Austria can be found in this dashboard at https://info.gesundheitsministerium.at

“In the context of the Covid-19 crisis, the main focus was on the increased and expanded use of the health advice hotline 1450 as a contact- and processing point for people suspected to have the new virus. During regular operation, 40 call takers work 24/7 to answer calls from the 1450 hotline, at peak times up to 100 call takers at the same time. In addition, 14 back office staff members are deployed to handle the calls. Also up to 15 ECNs are currently working on the telephone, normally only 5-7 are planned for regular operation, and doctors from the 141 hotline are also deployed to support 1450. This was connected with an increase of the necessary infrastructure such as workstations/technical equipment/telephone connection – including technical and service personnel as protection and to ensure the secure operation of the Notruf Niederösterreich GmbH. Home office possibilities were massively expanded, around 100 home office workstations had to be equipped for this purpose “.
Christof Chwojka

Managing Director, Notruf Niederösterreich GmbH