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Since the reality of COVID-19 reached the state in March, the number of calls coming into Montana 211 have spiked 70% as people look for resources amid the outbreak.

People can call 2-1-1 day or night, and the call center acts as a link to support services close to home like programs that offer rental assistance or mental health counseling. Four nonprofits across the state manage the system split between regions and some have needed to increase staff and volunteers to meet a surge in calls.

From March 17 through April 10, Montana 211 responded to 784 coronavirus-related calls and provided 1,817 referrals to resources.

Mandy St. Aubyn, with Help Center Inc. in Bozeman, said the number of people reaching out for support at once stands out with this crisis.

“In 2008 with the recession, the impact was so gradual and spread out over years,” Aubyn said. “This is a mass increase in community need.”

Health officials recorded the first case of the novel coronavirus in Montana on March 13. Two weeks later, a state mandate ordered people to stay home to slow the spread of the disease and tens of thousands of Montanans were suddenly unemployed.

Aubyn said the top three most common needs coming into the Help Center from across southwest Montana include access to crisis counseling, health or quarantine information, and rent or mortgage assistance.

Jackie Gittins, executive director of Voices of Hope, which manages the 211 service for central and southeastern Montana, said continued uncertainty wrapped in an invisible threat has worn on people.

At first, calls were often about the need to pay bills, afford food or apply for unemployment. Now, Voices of Hope is fielding more calls from people experiencing a mental health crisis or those looking for counseling through the ongoing threat to their financial stability and health.

“We’re moving up to the psychological phase more than the basic needs phase,” Gittins said.

How challenges tethered to the pandemic play out differs between urban and rural parts of Montana. Voices of Hope manages the call service for the largest swath of Montana, which also includes some of the state’s most rural counties.

Gittins said some people who call in are 60-plus miles away from the resources they qualify for. She also hears from those who don’t have internet access and were told to go online to see when their stimulus check could arrive.

“Being left out in the dark is not a good feeling, and the hard part is a lot of those counties don’t have a lot of resources to start with,” Gittins said. “On the other hand, those people are coping with isolation and quarantine better than the rest of us because they’re used to it.”

With Montana’s number of new COVID-19 cases in decline, the state allowed some businesses to reopen this week and lifted individual requirements for people to largely stay home. But a lot of uncertainty continues.

Health officials have warned if COVID-19 case numbers start to surge as more people interact, counties could return to stricter rules. And until there’s a vaccine, both state and public health leaders have said the risk that people could contract COVID-19 remains.

“Everybody is dealing with this in some way,” Gittins said.

To learn more about available resources, visit Montana211.org or call 2-1-1.

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Katheryn Houghton can be reached at khoughton@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.