Manitoba COVID-19 phone line swamped with calls after first presumptive cases announced

Manitoba's phone line set up to field questions about COVID-19 is swamped with calls, according to multiple people who contacted the CBC News.

Province confirms Health Links experiencing 'very high call volumes'

Health Links has been inundated with calls after the province announced the first three presumptive COVID-19 cases in Manitoba Thursday. (Shutterstock)

Manitoba's phone line set up to field questions about COVID-19 is swamped with calls, according to multiple people who contacted CBC News.

The province announced Thursday that Manitoba now has three presumptive cases of COVID-19. In the hours that followed, the Health Links hotline was inundated with calls.

"Health Links is understandably experiencing very high call volumes at the moment, with longer-than-usual wait times," a Winnipeg Regional Health Authority spokesperson wrote in an email. 

The province said it's working on a plan to address the higher-than-normal call volumes, and people should continue to keep trying to get through or contact their family physician.

One person told CBC News they were on hold for hours, while another one said they couldn't even get through on the phone line.

Arisnel Mesidor said he's been experiencing flu-like symptoms and tried about six times to get through on the phone.

"When I rang it, the message was, 'The customer you are trying to find is not available,'" he said. "I couldn't be more surprised."

He said he understood why the phone line would be busy, but was shocked that was the message he received.

"You would expect an official, government, public health line, especially around this time, you would expect a different message," he said, adding he wanted more information when he called, rather than a busy signal.

"I wasn't calling my best friend. I was calling my Manitoba Public Health," he said. "There is no need to panic, but we should be prepared. And the sense I had from that line is that we don't seem to be prepared."

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont says the province needs to do more to ensure the health-care system is prepared for COVID-19. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said the call backlog shows the province needs to expand capacity by hiring more phone operators and health-care workers.

"The one number the government's given out for Health Links isn't working properly," he said. "This government really needs to ramp things up."

Those who do get through to Health Links and believe they have COVID-19 symptoms may be directed to go to one of the two designated testing clinics in Winnipeg.

On Thursday, Manitoba Health announced two Access centres in the city are now dedicated to testing: one is at the Fort Garry (135 Plaza Dr.) location and the other at Winnipeg West (280 Booth Dr.).

Prior to that, Michael Kelly headed to the Victoria General Hospital where he said he waited four hours to get tested. He recently returned from a trip to Mexico.

"I was annoyed because there was no information being shared," he said.

Just over a dozen people wait for testing in an ambulance bay at Victoria General Hospital Thursday. (Submitted by Mike Kelly)

He said about 20 people were kept in an ambulance bay of the hospital waiting for tests, and were not given an indication of how long the wait would be.

"The ambulance bay was a bit of a shock, and then we were just left there," he said. "People kept coming in but no one was actually getting tested for an hour. When we finally got tested, it took 30 seconds."

Both the Access centre testing sites will be open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. from Monday to Friday, and on weekends from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The Fort Garry Access Centre, located at 135 Plaza Dr., is one of two current designated COVID-19 testing sites in Winnipeg. (CBC)

The testing sites are intended only for people with symptoms. Those people will be separated from the rest, according to the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

Results for COVID-19 tests take 24 to 48 hours. While they wait, patients should self-isolate at home, health officials said.

Those with other health issues should continue to call Health Links for advice on next steps.

The WRHA is encouraging Manitobans to keep calling Health Links at 204-788-8200 or 1-888-315-9257 (toll-free) for COVID-19 concerns and other health issues. That includes anyone who has travelled lately and developed cold or flu-like symptoms within 14 days of returning to Canada.

With files from Bartley Kives