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COMMENTARY: Long waits and unclear answers — my call to Ontario’s coronavirus hotline

Telehealth Ontario problems amid coronavirus outbreak
As the COVID-19 outbreak spreads, there are numerous reports government agencies tasked with answering questions and providing direction to those with symptoms are experiencing major issues.

I learned the hard way that, as of now, the system to get information if you believe you may have contracted COVID-19 is flawed in Ontario, with incredibly long wait times to get answers that aren’t very clear.

My extreme concern began when Toronto city Coun. Josh Matlow sent out a press release Monday, alerting the public that he had come into contact with someone who has the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

He said he was going into self-isolation at home “out of an abundance of caution” after he met with someone who tested positive for the novel coronavirus on Thursday.

I had interviewed Matlow for a story the day after, on Friday.

READ MORE: Toronto councillor in self-isolation after meeting with man who has COVID-19

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We’d chatted at his City Hall office, which had taken about 20 minutes, and I had shaken his hand on at least two occasions.

So the process began. I wanted to take the necessary precautions by contacting a health professional to get some knowledge of my case.

I called my local drop-in clinic — and right off the bat, the receptionist literally congratulated me.

She said that because the province hasn’t made the instructions clear, most people who’ve had contact with a coronavirus patient usually show up in person at a doctor’s office, putting others at risk.

She added that it was rare that someone calls instead.

READ MORE: More COVID-19 cases announced across Ontario, provincial total now at 41

The receptionist then read to me from a pamphlet, saying that the only option for people in my position is to call Telehealth — Ontario’s health advice service.

But I learned that wouldn’t be as easy as it sounds.

After calling Telehealth and waiting nearly an hour, a receptionist picked up the phone and informed me there would be a long wait to speak to a nurse.

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In fact, it would be an eight-hour wait, to be exact. Minimum.

The receptionist added that nurses were working around the clock and some were picking up extra hours to accommodate the spike in demand.

When I asked if I could leave my home and go about my day during that waiting period, she said that’s not something she could advise me on.

So I waited and waited and waited.

While I waited, I thought of the questions I wanted to ask.

The obvious ones: should I get tested for the virus? Should I go into self-isolation, or was I free to head back to work?

READ MORE: Do you think you have coronavirus symptoms? Here’s who to call first

After almost the entire eight-hour wait, I was able to speak with a registered nurse over the phone.

First, the good news: she told me I am at “really, really low risk” of having contracted COVID-19, especially since Matlow showed no signs of being ill when we met and he’s still believed to be asymptomatic.

But she also had very little to add when it came to how I should move forward. Whether I go to work or not depended “on my conscience” — and there appeared to be no clear criteria on whether someone should go into self-isolation or not.

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She added that Telehealth hadn’t seen this much demand for its services since the SARS and H1N1 outbreaks.

What’s more, this wasn’t the end of the line. I was told I now had to call Toronto Public Health and explain the situation to officials there — and they would determine whether I should get tested for the virus or not.

READ MORE: COVID-19 spurs calls to reduce traffic in Toronto hospitals

The Toronto Public Health offices were already closed for the night by that point, so another long wait.

The following morning, I called Toronto Public Health’s general number and selected the options to be directed to the professionals who deal with COVID-19 cases.

Another one-hour wait.

When a public health employee finally picked up my call, she confirmed I have very little reason to be concerned because the risk was “very low.”

The health professional then added that I did not require self-isolation because the virus can only be contracted when the person is displaying those symptoms.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: 6 things we still don’t know about COVID-19

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She added that if Matlow had shown signs of having COVID-19, I would be getting a call directly from Toronto Public Health instead — since health professionals would have narrowed down those with whom the city councillor came into contact after contracting the virus.

The health professional also added that she doesn’t believe I need to get tested but that I should keep an eye on my own health for the next 14 days to see if I feel any of the symptoms corresponding with COVID-19.

She also said I was clear to return to work.

I will give credit where it’s due: all of the professionals were kind, courteous and patient.

But it took nearly a day and a half, several calls to different health professionals and bodies, hours and hours of waiting and a few muddy answers to finally determine that I shouldn’t be tested for COVID-19 and I was clear to head back into work.

This was for a case that was two degrees of separation from a person infected with the virus.

There has to be an easier, clearer and more concise way than this since I’m sure there are many cases like mine around the province and that number is expected to grow.

Kamil Karamali is a digital broadcast journalist with Global News Toronto.

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