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USU Graduate Student Answers Questions About COVID-19... One Call at a Time

A graphic of a person with a headset on answering COVID-related questions

By Vivian Mason

“What can I do to protect myself from getting COVID until I can get a vaccine?” “If my spouse is being tested, do I need to be tested?” “Where can I get tested?” “How do I take care of my symptoms?” These questions and more have been common for many of us during the COVID-19 pandemic. Luckily, U.S. Army Capt. Peter Bizon, now a Global Health Engagement graduate student at the Uniformed Services University and nurse practitioner, jumped in to help address the pleas of more than 400,000 people looking for information through a call center run by the Loudoun County Health Department in northern Virginia.

At the start of the pandemic in early 2020, the Loudoun County Health Department sent out a request
Peter Bizon (left) and a colleague operate the phones at the Loudon County, Va., COVID-19 Call Center.
Peter Bizon (left) and a colleague operate the phones at the Loudoun
County, VA COVID-19 Call Center. Bizon is an Army Captain and a
student in USU's Global Health Engagement program.
(Photo courtesy of Loudoun County Government)
for volunteers to address the incredible volume of calls they had been receiving about COVID-19. Bizon, then working as an Emergency Medical Technician while finishing his Doctor of Nursing degree at George Mason University, found out about the call center through his job and decided his skill set could be of essential use to the center’s mission. However, COVID-19 was still new to most, so Bizon had to learn quickly in order to address concerns with the most up to date and accurate information.

“We had a bit of rudimentary call center training, as well as customer service instruction,” said Bizon. “In the beginning, nobody knew very much about COVID. We relied on the University of Washington’s findings about COVID that a resident posted on the website. Many doctors called in asking for information, so we’d direct them to that website that was filled with public information.”

Bizon continues on to say that working in a call center requires a wealth of specific skills, such as a strong knowledge of the subject matter, patience, attention to detail and organization, empathy, adaptability, clear and effective communication, the ability to handle unexpected roadblocks, and staying calm under pressure. As a nurse practitioner and EMT, Bizon was uniquely qualified to take on the challenge.

“It’s not as easy as it sounds,” Bizon maintains. “There’s a lot more going on in a call center than simply answering phone calls. We have to think outside the box on a daily basis so we can provide the best outcomes for the most callers. Depending on the call volume, there were usually two to four people per shift answering calls.”

A quote that reads "Hello, Peter Bizon, nurse practioner. I'm willing to listen."

With a greater influx of calls and more people searching for factual information, Bizon began to manage a team of volunteers as an appointed supervisor of incoming calls to take care of the high demand for general information about COVID. His team was staffed by registered nurses and nurse practitioners. Bizon’s leadership even allowed for extra time for “swab events” to give COVID tests. Even in the management position, however, Bizon continued to make time to address questions on the phone lines for those in need.

“People still had questions about the virus,” Bizon elaborates. “Where should they go? How do they get results? An important part of my job was to remain calm and listen because callers might be struggling with their own issues and illnesses. It was essential to speak clearly and listen intently.”

A photo of the Loudoun County Call Center.
USU Global Health Engagement graduate student Army Capt. Peter Bizon served as a volunteer with the Loudoun County, VA COVID-19
Call Center (pictured), answering questions from county citizens about the disease. (Photo courtesy of Loudoun County Government)

Safety at the call center was just as important to the staff. Everyone adhered to standardized social distancing, washed their hands, and wore masks. There was no equipment sharing of any kind, shifts and breaks were staggered to avoid crowded work areas, and all high touch areas, common spaces, and rest rooms were routinely cleaned and disinfected.

Bizon admits to working more than 350 hours during his volunteer stint at the call center. Normally, he would answer about 15 to 20 calls per six-hour weekday morning shift.

From his own experience, Bizon believes that callers resonate with the personal touch of interacting with a real person. 

“I remember speaking with an elderly woman,” Bizon says, “who had a heart ailment along with diabetes and a few other underlying conditions. She was upset about COVID and didn’t know quite what to do. After advising her, she said, ‘Thanks for the help and thanks so much for listening.’ Thus, in my opinion, it seems really all about listening during these trying times. People just want to connect and be helped.”

When asked about his most memorable call, Bizon finds it difficult to think of any particular one that stands out. 

“I know it sounds silly,” he remembers, “but I always introduced myself as, ‘Hello, Peter Bizon, nurse practitioner. I’m willing to listen.’ But, a lot of people would reply, ‘What I have to say is beyond your understanding. I need to talk to a doctor.’ Well, that always made me chuckle, but I was still just happy to help out.”