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More frustration as Island callers report long waits for COVID tests; province reacts

After three days of phoning to get a COVID-19 test through Island Health’s call centre, Al Morgan of Nanoose Bay jumped in his car and drove to Parksville in search of help, finally getting a nasal swab at the Oceanside Health Centre.
Health Minister Adrian Dix addresses the media on Thursday. Aug. 27, 2020. PROVINCE OF B.C.

After three days of phoning to get a COVID-19 test through Island Health’s call centre, Al Morgan of Nanoose Bay jumped in his car and drove to Parksville in search of help, finally getting a nasal swab at the Oceanside Health Centre.

That’s not the way it’s supposed to be done, but he got his test.

Morgan, 54, a self-employed cabinet maker, is one of many Island residents speaking up over recent weeks about long phone waits — with calls over several days — to get through to an agent at Island Health’s COVID call centre.

“This is a pandemic,” said Morgan. “People’s health, families, and jobs are at risk. Hiding behind the old ‘technical difficulties’ or ‘we’re hiring more staff to handle the volume’ doesn’t cut it.”

Anyone with symptoms in the Island Health region is required to phone the Island’s sole call centre — at 1-844-901-8442 — to book a test.

Island Health says the average wait is 60 to 90 minutes at peak times. Some callers say the wait is much longer, prompting some to abandon the calls.

“We recognize this has been frustrating for people and we sincerely apologize for the delays,” said Victoria Schmid, vice-president of pandemic planning for Island Health.

The call centre was staffed on Thursday by 12 registration clerks and 13 registered nurses.

More staff will be added Friday, Schmid said.

The Times Colonist reported wait times of 45 to 60 minutes in late July.

Morgan started to develop symptoms Sunday. His doctor is away for two weeks, so he called the province’s 811 health line for advice and was told to call Island Health’s call centre.

Morgan said he started calling at 8:30 a.m. Monday, but was told to try again later due to high call volumes, which he continued to do all day. “It’s all I did until 4:30 p.m., at which point the message changed to say the line was closed,” he said.

To ensure everyone’s call can be answered, Island Health now caps the queue at 80, after which callers get an automated message to call back another time.

Morgan said he began calling again Tuesday, only to be disconnected each time because the lines were busy. Meanwhile, his symptoms worsened.

On Wednesday morning, his call was answered. The estimated wait of two minutes was instead two hours.

After speaking to an agent, Morgan was told to hold for a nurse who would assess his symptoms.

“Before I could say ‘wait!’ I was on hold,” said Morgan. The estimated wait time of 38 minutes turned into 70 minutes.

The nurse eventually picked up, but couldn’t hear him because of a technical problem. He begged her not to hang up. She did.

His wife’s physician said he couldn’t help, since doctors only refer patients to the Island Health call centre.

Fed up, Morgan drove to the nearest testing centre in Parksville, at 489 Alberni Hwy. There was no line, but he was told the test had to be registered through the Island Health line.

Testing sites are unable to accommodate unscheduled or walk-in visits, according to Island Health.

Refusing to give up, Morgan went to the Oceanside Health Centre, an urgent primary care clinic. He was assessed by two nurses and a doctor and given a nasal swab for COVID-19. He was awaiting results Thursday evening, but was told he likely had the flu.

Morgan said he feels bad that he skirted the rules to get a test, but given his heart condition and the chance he could become seriously ill, and the months he’s already been out of work, including this week, he couldn’t afford not to be tested.

Shmid said the health authority has expanded its operation to include Sundays and hours are also being expanded into the evening.

The call centre received 346 calls on Monday, 351 on Tuesday and 372 on Wednesday.

It had been getting about 500 calls a day, which rose to 900 on Aug. 17.

On Wednesday, 475 COVID-19 tests were administered on Vancouver Island, two of which were positive.

Health Minister Adrian Dix acknowledged “a little bit of trouble” with the test booking system on Vancouver Island due to an increase in demand, but said it’s being worked on. He said the call abandonment rate has dropped from an “unfortunate” high of 70 per cent on Aug. 17 to seven per cent on Wednesday.

The health authority said it’s working with Telus on a way to take the names and numbers of callers who are waiting.

Morgan said the current system is not acceptable. “This isn’t a technological hurdle, nor does it require multitudes of highly skilled staff to take calls and cue them. Or to call them back. Or to have a working connection.

“The utility companies can do it. The telethons can do it. My dentist can do it. And according to Adrian Dix, the call centres on the mainland can do it with five times the callers, in 90 seconds.”

Dix said on Monday that the province’s 811 health line — staffed by registered nurses who give information only — answered 2,700 to 2,900 calls each day last week, with the average wait time under 90 seconds.

Morgan wonders if Island Health’s daily COVID-19 case count is relatively low compared to the Lower Mainland’s because people with symptoms can’t get tests.

“Limiting access to the test and meaningful results is likely to drive some people into giving up, or not bothering, and likely spreading [the virus] to others as a consequence,” he said.

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