In mid-March 2020, a Facebook status update screenshot began circulating, advising anyone in need that United Way had a COVID-19 Community Economic Relief Fund which could be accessed by calling 1-866-211-9966:
Black text on a pink and purple background read:
In case anyone needs this: United Way has a COVID-19 Community Economic Relief Fund. They will help with bills, rent, and food. You can call 1-866-211-9966 and provide zip code and will be given a list of local agencies to provide assistance. #repost
Before calling, we double checked the number — 866-211-9966 (which appeared to have been published in and deleted from a post to a local radio station’s website.) That particular phone number was not national, and it was associated with the United Way of Central Indiana.
On a separate page for 211 in Indiana, 866-211-9966 was listed as a number specifically for people in parts of Indiana to access help through the United Way:
Indiana 211 is a free service that connects Hoosiers with help and answers from thousands of health and human service agencies and resources right in their local communities – quickly, easily, and confidentially. We use statistical data (not personally identifiable information) from calls, texts and web visits to help shed light on the nature of social needs in Indiana for decision-makers and government across the state … Need Help Now? Dial 2-1-1 or 1-866-211-9966 Trained Navigators are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
The specific number provided (866-211-9966) was likely to do two things: overwhelm Indiana-specific resources for COVID-19 assistance seekers, and redirect callers to United Way services.
However, 211.org was not associated with a regionalized branch of the United Way. That site also maintained a specific COVID-19 response page, explaining that most people within the United States could call 211 and be directed to local resources. A landing page for COVID-19 began:
If you need assistance finding food, paying housing bills, accessing free childcare, or other essential services, use the search bar above to find your local 211 or dial 211 to speak to someone who can help.
The COVID-19 situation in the United States is evolving rapidly as more becomes known about the virus, how it is spread, and how it effects people. For the most accurate and timely information, visit the CDC’s website or monitor CDC social media channels. This page is being kept up-to-date as regularly as possible with answers to the most common questions 211s receive.
United Way posted a similar message on Facebook on March 16 2020:
The message claimed that calling the number would connect those affected with organizations providing help with “bills, rent, and food.” The site 211.org was apparently aware of the message, adding that assistance was not available in all areas:
PLEASE NOTE: If you hear that a United Way fund for financial assistance has been established in your area, consider finding your local United Way’s website to learn more about eligibility and application before reaching out to 211. Financial assistance is NOT available through every 211.
A viral Facebook post claimed that “anyone” in need should know the “United Way has a COVID-19 Community Economic Relief Fund. They will help with bills, rent, and food. You can call 1-866-211-9966 and provide zip code and will be given a list of local agencies to provide assistance.” That specific number was associated with the United Way of Central Indiana. According to the United Way’s 211.org, financial assistance was not available through every region’s 211 services, and Americans in need of such assistance should dial 211 to check whether such services were available in their area.