Nova Scotia

Head of 811 says anyone referred for a COVID-19 assessment will be tested

A woman recently referred by 811 to one of the province's COVID-19 testing sites was told when she arrived that she did not qualify for a swab. That will no longer happen, according to the head of 811.  

'So we hope to correct the frustration that we're seeing in the media'

Dr. Todd Howlett is the medical director of 811 in Nova Scotia. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

The head of 811 in Nova Scotia says everyone who is referred to a COVID-19 assessment site will now be tested for the virus.

"Anyone who is sent by 811 will be screened regardless of the secondary screening," said Dr. Todd Howlett, medical director of 811 for Nova Scotia. "So we hope to correct the frustration that we're seeing in the media."

Howlett said the 811 service is evolving rapidly to meet the challenges posed by the pandemic. 

Response to frustration

CBC News reported on a complaint from Toni Losey of Dartmouth, who broke her self-isolation after a referral by 811 to one of the province's COVID-19 testing sites. 

When she arrived, she was told she didn't qualify for a swab. 

Howlett said there are many explanations for the apparent contradiction. 

Toni Losey of Dartmouth, N.S., said she called 811 and was referred for a COVID-19 test. After arriving at the assessment site, she was told she didn't qualify. (CBC)

"One of the questions might be, 'Are you having a fever?' and the person might not have a thermometer at home. So they have a presumed fever, are sent to a site, and the site checks the temperature and says, 'You don't have a fever, so we're not going to swab you,' and then send them home." 

Howlett said he's sympathetic to how that must feel. "You can imagine how frustrating that is, right?"

He said the new policy of swabbing everyone who is referred for a COVID-19 test will eliminate these issues. 

Nurses answer the call

Howlett said 811 has doubled its staff and expanded its office space to handle a call volume four times higher than normal. 

"I can't say enough good things about the staff there," Howlett said.

"They've been working around the clock — some of the most tired people I've seen, and working heroically."  

The COVID-19 assessment sites in Nova Scotia can test up to 400 people a day. The health authority is keeping track of the number of swabs it uses, as they come from Italy and there's already a national shortage. (Nova Scotia Health Authority)

Howlett said he's been moved by how many nurses are volunteering to work under such difficult conditions. 

"One of the bright lights of this story is there's been a huge number of nurses that have reached out to 811 to offer their services and we're onboarding them very quickly," he said. 

Opportunity for medical students

Howlett said third-year and fourth-year medical students are also being trained to screen patients calling 811. 

They'll also assess provincial health-care staff who report possible exposure to COVID-19. 

Michael Mackley, the co-president of third-year medical students at Dalhousie University, said his classmates responded immediately. 

"We had over 100 students reply within hours of the ask," he said. 

Mackley said it's good to be able to contribute after a week at home following the cancellations of classes. 

"I hate to call it exciting, because obviously it's quite tragic what the country is going through right now," he said. "But certainly we're very grateful that we get to be able to play a role in some way."

He said medical students may eventually receive academic credit for their 811 experience, but that's not important right now. 

"I think people are looking forward to helping and also learning," he said. "This is a new experience for everyone."