Nfld. & Labrador

811 backlog improves as nurses added to deal with COVID-19 calls

The focus is on testing people who have travelled internationally, says Dr. Janice Fitzgerald.

Focus is on testing people who have travelled internationally, says Dr. Janice Fitzgerald

Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, Newfoundland and Labrador's chief medical officer of health, has become the face of the COVID-19 fight. (CBC)

Deborah Gullage called the 811 health line twice on behalf of family members who were showing symptoms of COVID-19 but were skeptical they could have contracted the virus.

The experience, she says, wasn't a positive one.

"I got nowhere with it," Gullage told CBC News. "They seemed unconcerned and did not recognize the fact that people could be carriers for up to and including the 14th day."

Gullage said she called the health line, which has been strained with the volume of calls about COVID-19 concerns, last Monday. She said she got disconnected about five minutes into the wait at least four times calling on behalf of her relatives.

"[One] person has experienced chills and a very, very bad cough," she said.

After visiting the hospital in Bonavista, her family member was told there would be no COVID-19 test. The province has warned people against going to the hospital, and has instead directed them to the health line.

"Both of these people downplayed their illness since they weren't exposed to anyone out of the county," Gullage said.

The COVID-19 assessment uses a swab, which is sent to a national laboratory for testing. (Nova Scotia Health Authority)

"However I know that within the small community, people returned from a cruise and started working the next day because they arrived in Canada hours before the mandate to self isolate."

Gullage fears the virus will spread because people aren't taking it seriously enough, and believes testing should be more easily available.

Similar complaints have been made, with concerned citizens reportedly waiting more than 24 hours to hear back from a nurse, and consistently being disconnected.

Newfoundland and Labrador Health Minister John Haggie said Wednesday the health line has been stretched thin and, as a result, 14 new registered nurses will be added to take calls and the number of lines have been increased.

He is referring the public to the government's online self-assessment tool, which asks the same questions that a nurse on 811 would.

As of publishing, there have been two presumptive cases and one confirmed case, which all stem from a woman returning from a cruise.

Who gets tested?

Newfoundland and Labrador Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said the Department of Health's focus is on testing people who have travelled internationally, as that is where the biggest risk is for importing COVID-19.

"We are watching the situation closely, and if we see that change in the coming days we will change our testing criteria to match it," she said during a media briefing Wednesday.

The nasal swab that's used for COVID-19 testing can also indicate if a person has another respiratory illness, Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald said Thursday the backlog has been decreased significantly, and wait times have been reduced, too. It takes about 24 hours for a public health nurse to get to a person's home to do the test.

However, she warns not everyone can be tested, just people who meet the criteria for a test.

"At the moment everybody who needs to be tested will be tested," she said

"There have been nationwide concerns about the supply of these swabs, and while we do have supplies in the queue to come, we want to be as judicious as possible to make sure we are finding those people who are most at risk for this disease."

At the moment the most at-risk are those who have travelled or have come in contact with cases of COVID-19.

If the health-care system begins to see the trajectory change, with community transmission and people who haven't travelled, she said, health officials will consider screening a wider group of people.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Ariana Kelland

Investigative reporter

Ariana Kelland is a reporter with the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador bureau in St. John's. She is working as a member of CBC's Atlantic Investigative Unit. Email: