Volume of calls for COVID-19 tests continue to overwhelm Island Health

As complaints continue about hours-long waits to book COVID-19 tests through its call centre, Island Health is making changes.

Extra staff are being hired and hours of operation extended as the health authority tries to deal with all those phoning to be assessed and book tests. The call centre — at 1-844-901-8442 — gets about 500 calls a day, though that rose to 900 on Aug. 17.

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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 altogether.

Victoria clinical counsellor Jeremy Addleman had mild symptoms last week and needed a test because of an upcoming medical treatment. On Wednesday, he said he had been trying to get through to the Island Health COVID line for days without success. “I’ve probably made 100 phone calls and been on hold for a total of four hours.”

He’s had to end calls to return to his telehealth work with clients.

Addleman, who eventually got through after two hours Wednesday and will have a test today, is worried that some people might give up on getting tested after experiencing what he has experienced, which could mean the Island’s COVID caseload is higher than reported.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry acknowledged the problems and said Monday that it’s being worked on.

A new testing centre in the south Island has been established to support the West Shore and, as with the call centre, staffing is a challenge, Henry said.

Victoria Schmid, vice-president of pandemic planning for Island Health, said another 28 staff were recruited last week and are being trained this week. The health authority is advertising for more staff, including 24 registered nurses, to answer phones and conduct assessments at the referral centre.

The call centre, which had been operating Monday to Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., is now open seven days a week, and the health authority is looking to expand hours into the evening, Schmid said.

Island Health has also changed its system so that after 80 calls are in the queue, no further callers can get through. The idea is to ensure that those callers who do end up on hold will be able to speak to someone. “But unfortunately, that does mean that people have to continue to call back right now,” Schmid said.

The health authority is working with Telus on a way for callers to leave their contact information when they can’t get through.

Once people get an appointment for a COVID-19 test, they get their nasal swab within a day or two.

“It’s about a maximum of 10 to 15 minutes to get in and get through and get out,” said Schmid, adding most people on the Island get their results in less than 24 hours.

“So that piece of the process works really well for us right now and very soon we’ll have the call centre working just as well so that people can get in right away.”

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said he’ll be in touch with Island Health about callers’ concerns about long waits.

Dix noted that the province’s 811 central health line dealt with 2,700 to 2,900 calls each day last week, and the average wait time is under 90 seconds.

While people can get information and advice from 811, it can’t be used to book tests.

Schmid issued a plea for people seeking information to call 811 instead of the call centre, or to go to the websites of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control or Island Health.

“If you don’t have symptoms, please don’t call the call centre,” said Schmid. “The call centre is for people with symptoms who absolutely need to get a test.”

Henry said those who suspect they have COVID-19 but haven’t been able to get through to the call centre should quarantine themselves and have patience.

“If you have symptoms, you should be staying away from others,” said Henry.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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