0800 VIRUS-19 line closes, ending an era

Monday 18 December 2023

The WellSouth COVID call centre, which opened in 2020, officially closed this month, another milestone to mark the end of the pandemic response.

Up until Thursday 7 December, the Southern COVID call centre, run out of WellSouth Primary Health Network, has been offering advice on Covid-19 testing and where testing is available via the phone line 0800 VIRUS-19 (0800 847 8719).

From left to right, Louise McIntosh and Jenni Duncan in the WellSouth office, in Dunedin.


Andrew Swanson-Dobbs, CEO WellSouth, looks back with some interesting statistics from the call centre’s life span.

  • 16 Registered Nurses were seconded from Te Whatu Ora Southern/Southern DHB to WellSouth to create the COVID Call Centre with the number 0800 VIRUS-19 for the Southern region.

  • Call centre desks, or pods, were set up across the various office spaces of the Princess Street premises, including what is now the staff room.

  • We were divided into two teams of eight nursing staff, working shifts that were four days on- four days off at 10 hours a day.

  • The team took calls to book appointments, call ambulances, book swabs, prepare portal forms and lab forms.

  • Later, when freight was allowed into our Dunedin or Bluff ports again, WellSouth was responsible for organising teams to board the vessels to carry out Covid-19 PCR testing, usually within 24-48 hours of notice of the ship’s arrival. The call centre had to prepare all the paperwork for the crew and work closely with the national team to get NHI numbers for the crew.

  • In August 2021, we had 105 calls one week (09/08/2021) and 1819 the following week.

  • During surges, for example Omicron, the calls would spike and the centre would bulge. We had to be flexible from one day to the next. One day there would be two staff, on another day 10.

  • We took 378 calls in on one day during the extreme surges.

  • In February 2022, at the height of  Omicron, we took 1056 calls during the week starting the 14/02/2022

  • Slowly, over time, staff returned to usual places of work. As at August 2022 at Level 2, the call centre was at three to four registered nurses and weekend cover went from 08:30 -16:30 to 08:30-12:30 by December 2022.

“We would like to acknowledge all the staff – the majority of whom are not with WellSouth – who came to the rescue,” says Mr Swanson-Dobbs.

“Suddenly and with little idea of what to expect, they had to pick up the phones and provide advice and a service to often-highly-distressed people.

“It was an incredibly tense, changing and unpredictable environment, and the team including our two call centre nurses Jenni Duncan and Louise McIntosh – who stayed on to be our permanent call centre team – stepped up and provided a wonderful service to our Southern Community.

“In the last few months, the 0800 VIRUS-19 has received fewer than one call per week on average, so we made the decision to close the line. People who need information on RAT collection sites and testing should contact Healthline or check healthpoint.co.nz for details,” he explains.

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