Nova Scotia

More staff hired as 811 woes continue in Nova Scotia

On Thursday morning, people on social media reported that when they rang Nova Scotia's 811 health line, they were given a message saying the caller they had tried to reach was unavailable.

'Clearly the numbers are higher than we anticipated,' Health Minister Randy Delorey says

The province has hired 15 to 17 additional 811 staff this week due to a surge in calls to the phone line. (Natasha Halili-Banks/Nova Scotia Department of Health and Wellness)

Nova Scotia's health minister said on Thursday that 15 to 17 additional staff have been hired to help address the ongoing problems with 811, as hundreds try to get through to book a COVID-19 test.

The Department of Health and Wellness said it is experiencing high call volumes this week and many people have received a busy signal when trying to reach the health phone line.

On Thursday morning, people on social media reported that when calling 811, they were given a message saying the caller they had tried to reach was unavailable.

Marla MacInnis, spokesperson for the department, confirmed that message was being triggered "because the volume of calls has exceeded system capacity at specific times."

"We appreciate the patience of callers experiencing the effects of the high call volumes. We encourage people who have received this message to please call back, especially for health assessments and COVID screening," she said in an email.

The issue has been particularly concerning for some parents whose children displayed COVID-19 symptoms and have been forced to stay home from school or daycare for days due to delays getting through to 811 and securing a test.

MacInnis said before the pandemic, 811 had 55 staff members. That number has now risen to 167. She said some technical opportunities are being explored to address the issue, but she could not provide further details.

Health Minister Randy Delorey told reporters that along with hiring more staff, they are also looking at the "telecommunication configuration portion."

Delorey said they were using the first-wave numbers as a benchmark for September. During the height of 811 use, between March 9 and 31, the phone line received on average 1,475 calls per day.

This week, there were 1,704 calls to 811 on Monday and 1,801 on Tuesday.

"Clearly the numbers are higher than we anticipated, so it will just take some time to get the recalibration between the system demand and the appropriate staffing levels to meet it," Delorey told reporters. 

He also said he's been assured that the phone lines are "not the principal bottleneck — it's the staffing."

University student testing

NDP Leader Gary Burrill told reporters that the province should have set up an expedited COVID testing system for public schools, just as it did for university students arriving from outside the Atlantic bubble.

"It was entirely anticipated that there would be sharp and dramatic spike in 811 calls in the opening weeks of the school year," he said. "This is the greatest reopening that was going to happen in our society since the pandemic began. It was entirely predictable.

"After all, we set that up a special system for university students because we understood the need."

Karla MacFarlane, Progressive Conservative MLA for Pictou West, said a constituent in her 70s told MacFarlane she had called 811 on Monday and still not heard back by Thursday.

"We can't underestimate the urgency from individuals wanting to call. There has to be a bigger investment to the 811 system, a better plan to schools opening up, businesses opening up," MacFarlane said. "They really need to do a better job."

811 issue depends on location, premier says

Emergency Medical Care Inc., a subsidiary of Medavie Health Services, which has the provincial 811 contract, still had job vacancies for 811 operators posted on its website as of Thursday afternoon.

There are now roughly 150 people hired at 811 and the system has 200 phone lines.

Premier Stephen McNeil said Thursday that the cause of the 811 delay differs depending on where in the province a person lives.

"In some cases, we've heard from people who have had no issues getting through to 811. And then we've heard some others," McNeil told reporters.

"So there's no question that we are working to try and ensure that everyone's experience gets somebody, if not right away, that they get a returned call within that day."

McNeil also said there have been some gaps between when a COVID-19 test was taken and when it was sent to the lab.

He said some of the $289 million in funding from Ottawa for COVID-19 issues announced on Wednesday will be used for 811, as well as tracking and tracing the virus.