British Columbia

I'm trying to call 811 and can't get through. What now?

B.C.'s free health helpline has seen a spike in calls since COVID-19 reached the province. Here's what to do if you get an endless busy signal.

Helpline has seen spike in calls over coronavirus, but best to stay on hold, be patient, health minister says

Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster, B.C. If you suspect you have COVID-19, you should only attend an emergency department or urgent care centre if you need medical help right away. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

UPDATE, March 16: The province has created a new non-medical information line dedicated to coronavirus which can be reached at 1-888-COVID19. 

B.C.'s free health helpline has seen a spike in calls since COVID-19 reached the province.

Some people have reached a frustrating, endless busy signal.

Others have waited upward of an hour for advice, leading to a rush by provincial officials to bolster the service and hire more nurses.

Here is some guidance on when you should call, and what to do if you can't get through.

Questions answered in this article:

       
  • When should I call?
  •    
  • Should I stay on hold?
  •    
  • Can I call anywhere else instead?
  •    
  • What if I feel really sick?
  •    
  • Why am I on hold for so long?
  •    
  • Have they hired more nurses?
  •    
  • What if English isn't my first language?
  •    
  • What if I am hard of hearing?

When should I call 811?

British Columbians can call 811 for free from anywhere in the province to speak with a registered nurse about their health, including the novel coronavirus and COVID-19.

The hotline is for anyone who suspects they have the illness, are showing symptoms related to COVID-19 or who require assistance with other health issues. 

Nurses can help people who may have the virus assess how they are feeling and, if needed, arrange for safe testing.

Is there another place to get answers?

For those with general questions about COVID-19: On Monday, the province announced the creation of a new non-medical hotline dedicated solely to answering queries about COVID-19. 

People can call this hotline, which can be reached at 1-888-COVID19 or 1-888-268-4319, between 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day, for the latest information on travel recommendations, social distancing, and supports and resources available from the provincial and federal governments. 

The B.C. Nurses Union said many questions reaching 811 operators could be answered online. Check credible, reputable websites for information on the virus — it could save you a phone call and keep 811 nurses free to take other calls.

HeathLink B.C. has published a list of questions its operators are seeing often, including the answers to those questions. You can find that list here.

The president of the union suggested the following sites for basic information:

Health Canada also has a designated information line for the novel coronavirus: 1-833-784-4397.

Do I stay on hold, or give up and try later?

Stay on hold.

Health Minister Adrian Dix has acknowledged how frustrating the busy signal can be, especially for those feeling anxious about their health.

He asked callers to be patient, remain calm and stay on the line.

Can I call anywhere else instead?

You can also contact your primary care provider or local public health office before trying 811, if you suspect you have the virus and want to ask about testing.

I'm really feeling sick. Should I skip the call and go see a doctor?

Do not go to a health-care centre unannounced if you suspect you may have COVID-19. Call ahead.

By calling ahead, you help the clinic, hospital, lab, urgent care centre or doctor's office prepare for your visit and stop the spread of germs.

Urgent medical care is different. That means your health has taken a turn for the worse and you need medical care immediately. If it becomes harder to breathe, if you can't drink anything, or — for those who have already been tested for COVID-19 — you begin feeling worse than you did when you got the test, get help at an urgent care clinic or emergency department.

As always, call 911 in an emergency. If you have chest pains, difficulty breathing, or severe bleeding, it could be life threatening. 

The symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to other respiratory illnesses, including the flu and common cold. They include cough, sneezing, fever, sore throat and difficulty breathing.

Why am I on hold for so long?

The service is receiving a record-breaking amount of calls.

Dix, the health minister, said the service usually sees about 1,000 calls per day. On Wednesday, the service received 3,291.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix addresses reporters about the novel coronavirus on Feb. 24, 2020. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

Have more nurses been hired to staff the line?

Dix said the number of nurses staffing the line has risen by 10 since the COVID-19 outbreak, making a total of 25. The minister said officials are also working to add more phone lines to help manage call volume and prevent busy signals.

English isn't my first language. Can I still call?

Yes. Translation services for 811 are available in more than 130 languages.

What if I have trouble hearing on the phone?

Those who are deaf or hard of hearing can call 711, instead of 811, to reach HealthLink B.C.


If you have a COVID-19-related story we should pursue that affects British Columbians, please email us at impact@cbc.ca.

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