Talking us through our fears. 

That’s one of the roles taken on by UT Health San Antonio’s School of Nursing as the novel coronavirus has gripped the nation. The school on March 18 set up a COVID-19 hotline to provide guidance and information for employees, students and their families.  

Since then, the hotline has received hundreds of calls, averaging 35 a day, said Cindy Sickora, D.N.P., RN, vice dean of practice and engagement in the School of Nursing who implemented and oversees the hotline. 

“People call and they’re not feeling well,” said Dr. Sickora, “and they don’t know what to do. Primary care doctors don’t want to see them unless they’re COVID-19 negative. So they don’t know where to go. We give them information, go over the symptoms, tell them what to expect and identify who needs to be tested.” 

Karen O’Rourke, M.S.N, RN, one of the nurses staffing the hotline, said the experience is gratifying. 

Callers are anxious and they’re scared,” she said. “And we’re able to reassure them. We have the facts. We’re following the guidelines. There are so many myths out there. We’re able to give factual information, and that helps take the fear away.” 

The most touching calls, O’Rourke said, are from health care providers themselves. 

“The front-line physicians, nurses, dentists and all the others, their first concern is not themselves, it’s for their patients,” she said. “So they ask questions about that.” 

Dr. Sickora said the calls go far beyond physical symptoms and protocols. 

“So much is related to the emotional stress of thinking they have COVID-19,” she said. “And that’s true of the environmental workers who call, to the Ph.D.s, to physicians—every level.” 

At the beginning of the outbreak, Dr. Sickora added, no tests were available, “but we’re over that hump now.”  

Callers determined to need testing are asked to drive to the School of Nursing, where they are tested while remaining in their cars.  

Students are also taking an active role. Recipients of ACORN grants have set up screening stations across UT Health San Antonio’s campus to ensure faculty and staff who continue to work on campus are healthy. ACORN stands for Advancing Community Oriented Registered Nursing. 

As for how long the outbreak will remain critical, Dr. Sickora referred to the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “Not even Dr. (Anthony) Fauci can answer that,” she said. 

As for now, Dr. Sickora said, “It’s batten down the hatches and get ready for the surge.” 

The nurse-run hotline, at 210-450-8000, operates 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 

Faculty from the School of Nursing at call center.
Faculty and staff from the School of Nursing working during the first week of operations at the COVID-19 Testing Call Center setup at the Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council.


volunteers on phones
School of Nursing faculty members volunteer at a COVID-19 call center.