Island Health still trying to reduce two-hour call waits for COVID tests

Callers seeking COVID-19 tests continue to experience two-hour waits at peak periods, as Island Health tries to cope with high demand.

The goal is to reduce wait times to 20 to 30 minutes, said Victoria Schmid, vice-president of pandemic planning for Island Health.

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“I’m confident we will get there with the improvements we are making,” Schmid said.

Island Health has been struggling to reduce its call-centre wait times since July, when demand for tests ramped up alongside new cases as pandemic restrictions were eased.

Anyone wanting a COVID-19 test in the Island Health region must first phone its call centre at 1-844-901-8442. An agent and a registered nurse complete an assessment and book the test.

Two weeks ago, those phoning the call centre were waiting more than three hours at peak periods. Call volumes have ranged from about 300 to 900 a day in the last three months. (The high of 900 was on Aug. 17.)

Last week, daily call volumes ranged from 224 to 481, ramping up to 529 on Monday.

Callers have been waiting 2 to 2 1/2 hours at peak periods.

Schmid said Island Health is working as hard as it can to ensure wait times are as low as possible, so callers don’t give up on getting tested out of frustration.

“Testing is the number one way we are keeping [case] numbers down,” said Schmid.

The biggest impediment is the shortage of human resources, she said. There were 22 call-centre nurses on phones on Tuesday, double the number from July. Everyone from new nurses to retired registered nurses is being hired, although Island Health doesn’t want to reduce the supply of surgical nurses needed to staff busy operating rooms as thousands of surgeries that were postponed in the height of the pandemic are performed, or to draw staff from busy acute-care hospitals or contact-tracing teams.

“Hiring takes a long time,” Schmid said. “We are doing our best to say: ‘OK, whose work is most important right now and to pull those levers to get staff into roles as fast as possible.”

The health authority is also reviewing the mix of nursing and non-nursing staff needed in the call centre, as well as looking at how to shorten the assessment to book at test.

A call-centre answering service offering a call-back option was expected to be in place this week, but that has not happened, so some callers have to keep calling back, Schmid said. Currently, 120 calls can be in the system, after which callers receive a message to call back, with no option to leave their name and information.

“It’s the anxiety of having to call multiple times that is very frustrating, and I’m sorry for that,” Schmid said. “I hear that frustration, so that’s why we are working quickly to get that call-back system in place.”

Hours have been extended for the call centre, which is open for calls daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., but the extra time is for staff to catch up and complete calls already in the queue.

Once an appointment is booked, it takes about 10 to 15 minutes to get a swab test at a drive-through testing centre.

On Tuesday, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced 97 new cases in the province for a total of 7,376 to date. There were no new cases on Vancouver Island, where the total to date is 195.

There are now 1,590 active cases of COVID-19 in B.C., of which 12 are in Island Health.

Another 3,001 people are actively being monitored for the virus, 48 of whom are on the Island. No new deaths were announced on Tuesday, leaving the total at 219 to date. Five of those have been in the Island Health region.

Those seeking general COVID information can call the province’s 811 health line or search the B.C. Centre for Disease Control or Island Health websites. The Island Health call centre is specifically for those with symptoms seeking a test.

As part of its new pandemic plan, the province wants to increase its COVID testing capacity to 20,000 province-wide from the 8,000 capacity it has now. On a daily basis, about 4,000 to 6,000 tests are performed in the province.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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