NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

‘Gratitude Tour’ Goes Virtual

Collins Expresses Appreciation to Covid Response Teams

Screenshot grid of faces
In a conference video call, NIH director Dr. Francis Collins, with wife Diane Baker (top l), thanked the Covid Response Teams, which consisted of the Call Center, Contact Investigations and OMS Return-to-Work Teams, as well as the IT specialists who helped set it up and keep it all going. Teams consisted of more than 200 people known to most they served by voice alone, via phone. Many were retirees who volunteered to return to work.

The NIH director’s “Gratitude Tour” is continuing. 

On Aug. 11, Dr. Francis Collins joined in a conference call to thank the NIH Covid Response Teams, i.e., the Call Center, Contact Investigations and OMS Return-to-Work Teams, as well as the IT specialists who helped to integrate the necessary processes. These are the more than 200 folks known to most they serve by voice alone, via phone. So this part of the Gratitude Tour had to be virtual.

Covid response workers, divided into several teams, established and maintained an essential “Covid hotline” for NIH, streamlined the case intake process, interviewed thousands of people who had been in contact with the more than 1,600 employees diagnosed with Covid-19, assessed risk for the workplace with in-depth interviews of those diagnosed with Covid-19 and their workplace contacts, and developed critical databases and IT tools to manage documentation and data analysis.

Set up in two FAES classrooms on the B1 level in March 2020, the teams’ operations converted fully to virtual mode by October 2020. The Contact Investigations Team communicated with the thousands of workers who called to talk about the implications of testing positive for Covid-19 or having contact with a co-worker while they may have been contagious. 

The “Negative” and “Positive” Resulting Teams worked quickly to pave the way for a safe and sound return to work for workers who were tested—whether virus was detected or not—or reported Covid-related health concerns such as signs of illness or a possible exposure to the novel coronavirus.

As Dr. Heike Bailin of the Occupational Medical Service said to introduce the virtual meeting, everyone working for the Covid response “took care of business and people.” 

As acting OMS director, Bailin oversaw the program that consisted of 200-plus NIH’ers who, pre-pandemic, worked in other roles all across the agency, but volunteered to serve as knowledgeable and sympathetic ears and messengers when the Covid crisis evolved.

“I’m amazed at how quickly and efficiently the call center was set up,” said Collins, in the virtual meeting that added faces to the voices of more than 100 response workers who joined in the video call that day. 

Diane Baker, Collins’s wife and self-identified “invisible and silent fan” of the program, also appeared on camera to congratulate staffers. Over dinner many evenings, she’d heard from Collins about the incredible diligence and heroic efforts of response team employees and wanted to add her appreciation to the growing chorus of congratulations.

Several individuals in the meeting shared personal and deeply emotional testimonies about calls they had taken, employees and their family members who had been counseled and consoled, and the camaraderie the teams had built. 

More than one life-saving situation had been handled deftly with extraordinary follow-up. 

In addition, several calls with bad, even heartbreaking news had been delivered with empathy and compassion. 

Overall, response crews—with their “upbeat attitudes and patient-centered guidance”—put caring first, “answering unprecedented need with unparalleled energy,” according to Bailin.

“I’m fond of thinking of NIH not as an institution but as a family,” Collins said. “I can’t remember a time I’ve felt more like that than this afternoon hearing these stories. You all just stepped in and did what had to be done. I am deeply grateful that you have kept the NIH family safe.”

Since March 2020, more than 1,600 NIH employees with Covid-19 were assessed by 3 contact-tracing teams. The week of Dec. 27, 2020, to Jan. 2, 2021, had the highest number of cases, with 109 cases in 1 week. April 2020 was the center’s highest month of calls, with more than 3,700 calls. 

As of the beginning of August 2021, the call center had handled about 42,000 calls; approximately 24,000 of those were incoming calls and about 18,000 were outgoing. Call teams also handled an impressive number of OMS Covid questionnaires, with almost 17,000 surveys received as of early August 2021.   

The NIH Record

The NIH Record, founded in 1949, is the biweekly newsletter for employees of the National Institutes of Health.

Published 25 times each year, it comes out on payday Fridays.

Assistant Editor: Eric Bock (link sends e-mail)

Staff Writer: Amber Snyder (link sends e-mail)