Frustration, waiting as calls to 811 more than triple normal rate since Sask. changed COVID-19 testing rules

More than 15,000 calls and limited staffing means that there can be thousands of people in line for a call and residents can spend hours waiting for a call back.

'This a significant increase,' the Sask. Health Authority said

Vehicles in a lineup at the COVID-19 drive-thru testing site at the old Costco building in Regina, Sask., on Jan. 11, 2021. (Cory Herperger/CBC News)

A Regina family had a stressful 24 hours this week as they waited for a call back from the province's 811 HealthLine service.

Miranda Klinger said she placed a call to 811 on Monday in an attempt to arrange a PCR test for her 14-year-old, who was experiencing symptoms and was a close-contact of a confirmed case at local high school.

"She has four little sisters in our house, two of which who their second dose isn't really effective yet, and a third sister who is immunocompromised," Klinger told CBC News.

"So it was very important for us to know with 100 per cent certainty what we're dealing with."

Klinger was shocked when the automated system told her she was 1,277th in line to speak with someone.

She even had the system play it back twice to make sure she'd heard it correctly.

More than triple the calls

Klinger and her family are not the only ones waiting to receive direction and advice from the SHA's service.

Calls to 811 related to COVID-19 have exploded in the wake of the provincial government's decision to shift its policy on testing.

The Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) said that between Dec. 30 and Jan. 10, the province's HealthLine received more than 15,000 calls.

"This a significant increase, which is more than three times our regular call volumes," the organization said in a statement.

On Dec. 30, the province announced that would be instituting a change to how it tested for COVID-19, due to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant in Saskatchewan.

"Up until today, we've been telling you that if you test positive with a rapid test that you should then go get a PCR test to confirm that result. And we're saying today that is no longer necessary," said Premier Scott Moe at a news conference on that date.

Asymptomatic individuals should instead assume they are positive for COVID-19 and self-isolate, Moe said.

PCR testing capacity is currently being reserved for those with symptoms of COVID-19 as well as high priority groups such as health-care workers, long-term care and personal residents as well as those who care for other vulnerable populations.

A lengthy wait

Instead of waiting on hold along with more than 1,000 people in front of her, Klinger requested a call back.

But that can also take time, and with the 811 service working around the clock it also means a call can come at anytime.

"It's frustrating. It sucks right now," Klinger said.

She received a call on Tuesday afternoon, around 24 hours after placing her initial call.

Klinger had nothing but kind words for the 811 worker she spoke with.

They were understanding and helpful — a last minute cancellation meant that Klinger's daughter was able to a get a PCR test on Tuesday afternoon.

They're still waiting for the results of the test.

Part of what is generating so many calls to 811 is the recommendation from the provincial government that people contact the number if they are unsure how to manage their symptoms or have symptoms of COVID-19 and may need a test.

The SHA said it is continuing to tackle the backlog of calls, but that it does not have the staff required to respond in the amount of time it targets.

Staff are being recruited in an attempt to alleviate the issue.

Until then, the SHA is asking residents to be patient and read through the province's COVID-19 website before calling, as many answers to frequently asked questions can be found there.

With files from Dayne Patterson


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