Nova Scotia

High 811 call volumes sparks calls for change around back-to-school COVID tests

Some parents and opposition parties are calling for more to be done around the backlog being created by back-to-school COVID-19 testing after difficulties getting through the 811 phone line.

Nova Scotia's opposition parties say 811 changes need to be made

Since the pandemic began, officials have instructed people with potential COVID-19 symptoms to call the non-emergency health line. (Nova Scotia Health Authority)

The province says it is too early to identify why there were so many 811 calls this week, as some parents and opposition parties are calling for more to be done about the backlog being created by back-to-school COVID-19 testing.

On Monday, the Department of Health and Wellness tweeted that the non-emergency healthline was experiencing high call volumes.

Department spokesperson Marla MacInnis said in an email there were 1,704 calls to 811 on Monday and 1,801 on Tuesday.

"There could be a variety of factors that contributed to the increase in calls to 811, but it is too early to definitively identify the cause," she said.

MacInnis said 811 added additional staff this week to respond to high call volumes and "continues to evaluate other opportunities to adjust." The 48-to-72-hour timeframe between administering a COVID-19 test and returning results to a patient has not changed. 

People not calling for a COVID screening, and whose symptoms are manageable, are asked to visit the 811 website. They should call 811 if their symptoms worsen.

Elizabeth MacNeil-Gilby, who lives in Elmsdale, said she's been having cold symptoms and tried to get through to 811 on Tuesday morning, but only received a busy signal.

This isn't the first time she's had frustrations with the 811 process.

In early September, MacNeil-Gilby's five-year-old son had a high fever, was lethargic, dizzy and said he didn't feel well.

She contacted 811 on Sunday evening. It took an hour to get through to the triage nurse, who told her she would be contacted by a registered nurse about whether her son should be tested.

MacNeil-Gilby said by Monday afternoon, she still hadn't heard back, so she called 811 again. She said she was told it can take up to 72 hours.

"I said, 'I can't wait 72 hours. I have two kids in daycare, they're both not allowed there now, even though my youngest wasn't sick,'" she said.

By Tuesday afternoon, her son was still feeling sick and there had been no call back, so she brought him to the emergency room in Truro, where he was given a COVID-19 test.

On Thursday night, they received a negative COVID result, but she and her husband had already missed almost a week of work.

"I don't know what people will do who have to go to work. People who are nurses or jobs where their employers aren't understanding," she said.

"I think people will lie or not get them tested, or keep them home for a day and send them back."

The provincial labs completed 866 tests on Monday. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Maggie Chickness of Halifax said she also wonders what parents are going to do if this becomes an ongoing problem in the winter months.

On Thursday, her 21-month-old son's daycare called to tell her he had three of the listed symptoms and had to be picked up.

It took her two hours to get through to 811. They scheduled a test for Saturday and by late Sunday night had the negative result back.

But by then, she and her child's father had already made other arrangements, each missing a day of work.

"I have so much anxiety leading up to this fall and winter to know that he probably won't be in daycare the majority of that time, but we still have to pay for that service while we miss work."

PCs, NDP call for 811 changes

Both the Progressive Conservatives and the NDP are calling for improvements to the 811 system.

"We're putting people in a terrible situation," said PC Leader Tim Houston in a news release.

"They are forced to choose between either missing work for days at a time, or not making that call to 811. We should be creating the incentive to call 811 if you are unsure. Government is not doing that right now."

He said in the release that during a recent meeting of the standing committee on health, no firm number was given on future testing capacity.

Tim Houston said in a news release on Tuesday that months into the pandemic, there is no indication that COVID-19 testing capacity has been substantially increased in the province. (CBC)

The NDP said in a release that they are calling for a plan to expedite testing to manage any outbreaks in schools. They want to include on-site testing at schools and prioritizing results for students, staff and teachers.

"Waiting hours to get through to 811, days for an appointment and longer for testing and results is not sustainable when it means keeping students out of school and parents at home," said NDP education spokesperson Claudia Chender in the release.

"Expedited testing for those connected with our schools is a must."'

80 new 811 hires since pandemic began

Nova Scotia's 811 system normally has 55 staff. Since the pandemic began, they have hired 80 new people and there are now 200 active phone lines to meet the demand resulting from COVID-19.

Between 6 a.m. and midnight, there are between 19 and 26 staff responding to calls. There are fewer staff working after midnight.

Below are the approximate average incoming calls to 811 per day in Nova Scotia in 2020:

  • January: 306
  • February: 332
  • March 1 to 8: 390
  • March 9 to 31: 1,475
  • April: 1,203
  • May: 879
  • June: 861
  • July: 1,062
  • August: 1,186

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