'Panicked and worried': Callers concerned about COVID-19 left hanging after Telehealth crashes

The provincial telephone hotline meant to help Ontarians with questions about their health had to suspend service due to technical issues on Wednesday, leaving many callers concerned about COVID-19 wondering where to turn. Telehealth Ontario got back up and running Wednesday night.

Hotline back in operation after suspending service Wednesday afternoon

Technical issues forced Telehealth Ontario to shut down Wednesday. The service has been inundated with calls about the novel coronavirus since mid-January. (Reuters)

The provincial telephone hotline meant to help Ontarians with questions about their health is back up and running after it had to suspend service on Wednesday, leaving many callers concerned about the novel coronavirus wondering where to turn.

Sandy Pang, 41, who's had a fever for several days and has been feeling tired, had been dialing Telehealth Ontario to get a referral to a COVID-19 assessment centre.

"I feel panicked and worried," Pang told CBC Toronto Wednesday morning after calling the Telehealth number and being forced to hang up for the sixth time.

Ontario's Ministry of Health website instructs those who think they may have the novel coronavirus to first take an online self-assessment, then call Telehealth Ontario. But there have been multiple reports of long wait times and people simply not being able to get through.

The website for Ontario's Telehealth system alerted users of a service interruption early Wednesday. Anyone needing immediate support was asked to contact their local health unit instead. 

Health Minister Christine Elliott said that an additional 300 lines added to Telehealth may be the reason the system crashed.

'We're staffing up considerably'

"We are actively working with the provider to remedy the situation," she said, adding she expected it to be "up and running again very soon."

Telehealth has been inundated with calls since mid-January as concern grows around the potential spread of the virus.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford answers questions as Minister of Health Christine Elliott and Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams, left, listen in during a news conference. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Provincial health officials say they've been trying to expand the service to keep up with the call volumes..

"We're staffing up considerably," Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health David Williams said Wednesday afternoon.

The provincial government has added approximately 130 nurses to "conduct symptom assessments and referrals among callers who request a call back," said Hayley Chazan, a spokesperson for the provincial Minister of Health.

Chazan says the government is also exploring partnerships with organizations that have existing call centres.

Province could soon be testing 5,000 people a day

The demand for tests is increasing. said Dr. Barbara Yaffe, the associate chief medical officer for Ontario. She said centres are "doing just under a 2,000 a day" and she expects that number of COVID-19 tests to soon rise to 5,000 a day.

But some doctors say they have not been given the phone numbers for the assessment centres. As a result, they say, it's becoming difficult to coordinate sending patients who may have the novel coronavirus for testing.

" It's frustrating not being able to have lists of numbers that we can contact easily,' said one midtown Toronto family doctor.

CBC Toronto has agreed to protect the physician's identity. 

"The risk is people may not get the test..and you're still going to have a flood of people in [emergency wards]," the doctor said.

"I guess it's always possible if somebody is mildly symptomatic ... that they decided they're not going to get tested and they're not going to isolate the way they're supposed to isolate." 


Natalie Kalata

Senior Reporter, CBC News

Natalie is an award-winning senior reporter for CBC News Network and CBC The National specializing in breaking news. Whether it's a terror attack or a royal tour, she brings the stories to you. Natalie lives in Toronto with her husband and family.