811 delays frustrate some Nova Scotians calling with COVID-19 concerns

Richard leBrasseur hasn’t felt well since returning home to Truro, N.S., from a family vacation at Disney World in Florida late last month, and now that he’s developed a cough, he’s worried.

He said he called Nova Scotia’s 811 line on Wednesday morning to talk to a nurse about whether he may have been exposed to COVID-19, and was told someone would call him back in few hours. More than 24 hours later, no one had.

“If there’s only one means to get in touch with someone, and that’s 811, and if they’re not picking up, and if they’re not following through on what they said to do, that’s pretty frustrating,” said leBrasseur, who has been trying to self-isolate.

He finally received a return call on Thursday afternoon and was invited for a COVID-19 test at the Colchester East Hants Health Centre in Truro.

His problems come as health officials, including Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Strang, have urged people to call 811 if they have a cough or fever and have travelled out of country.

From there they may be referred to a COVID-19 assessment site. As of Thursday afternoon, no one had tested positive in Nova Scotia for the virus.

The COVID-19 assessment sites in Nova Scotia can test up to 200 people a day. The health authority is keeping track of the number of swabs it uses, as they come from Italy and there’s already a national shortage. (Nova Scotia Health Authority)

In a statement, the Nova Scotia Health Department said 811 is “experiencing a significant increase in calls,” and the department is working to hire more staff and redirect resources from other areas. On Wednesday, the line fielded 1,364 incoming calls, four times the average for the 10 days prior.

Many of those calls, the department said, are from people asking for general information about COVID-19 or advice about travelling. The department is urging those people to instead visit the province’s coronavirus website, or call the federal COVID-19 hotline at 1-833-784-4397.

“It is important that callers who have health concerns and those who have travelled outside Canada and are experiencing fever and/or cough contact 811 for an assessment,” spokesperson Heather Fairbairn said in an email.

Number ‘not available’

Sara Wallace of Halifax is also unhappy with her experience with 811. She has a cold and was recently at a mining conference in Toronto at which one of the participants tested positive for COVID-19.

She too spoke to an 811 triage nurse who told her she could expect a call back, but that it would take at least six hours. 

“It was already 10 p.m., so I said, ‘At the very best maybe you can call me back in the morning or I’ll give you guys a call back in the morning and get on the waiting list again,'” she said. “Unfortunately, I’ve been trying all day and it’s not answering. There’s a message that that number is not available and try again later.”

She finally did get ahold of an intake person Thursday afternoon, and was again told there would be a callback in six hours.

Like leBrasseur, Wallace felt let down by a system put in place to try to help or reassure people who are concerned about their health. She wonders whether 811 has the staff or resources needed to cope.

“I have a legitimate connection to the COVID virus and that service is not available, so perhaps Nova Scotia has been taken by surprise,” she said.

“I’m not nervous about my own health, but I also don’t feel like I’m probably in the best position to make that decision by myself,” said Wallace. “I feel like I should have some input from a health professional about the decisions I’m making.”

Meantime, Wallace is working from home until she feels better.

In its statement, the Department of Health said additional lines are being added to 811 so more calls can be received and it is also developing an online self-assessment tool, both of which were scheduled to be up and running later Thursday.

“We want to assure Nova Scotians that we are working hard to respond to all calls in a timely fashion,” the statement said. “Messages to the system are triaged and calls to the system are returned on a priority basis.”

The department said it anticipates it will be “well positioned to manage the increased demand for 811 service in the coming days.”

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