Do I have coronavirus? Jammed public health phone lines leave Canadians in the dark

Click to play video: 'Telehealth Ontario problems amid coronavirus outbreak'
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. – Mar 11, 2020

Editors note: On March 16, the Ontario provincial government announced an expansion of Telehealth’s resources including increased action to tackle call wait times. Read more here.

For days a Toronto man called two public health authorities, clinics and hospitals several times to ask what to do about symptoms he believed could be the result of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

After hours on hold with Telehealth Ontario, the public hotline residents have been encouraged to contact if they have symptoms like a cough, fever or shortness of breath, Anthony is now self-quarantined and is unsure how to proceed.

Global News has agreed to use a pseudonym for privacy reasons.

He claims he was told by staff at Telehealth that he would be connected with a health professional within seven to 10 hours.

Story continues below advertisement

“This shows the ill-preparedness of the medical care system, including clinics,” he said. “On the other hand, it also shows the lack of transparency of information provided by government to medical communities and the public as a whole.”

As confirmed cases of COVID-19 continues to rise in Canada, hotlines in each province are often jammed. More than 140 cases have been reported across the country. 

Multiple sources told Global News Telehealth Ontario’s wait times varied between six and 14 hours. Sources said they did not have issues with Teleheath’s advice, despite waiting for long periods of time. 

Ontario’s Ministry of Health told Global News via email that they’ve experienced a “significant increase in call volume” related to influenza and COVID-19 since Jan. 25.

More than 5,200 calls have been made to the service on these topics, they said. Whether they recommend someone be tested for COVID-19 is done on a case-by-case basis on risk assessment and are referred either to an emergency room, or their local public health unit, depending on how severe the symptoms are.

Ontario will also launch a tool in the coming days on their website containing a COVID-19 questionnaire to help patients assess their risk without a phone call. A cough or a fever doesn’t automatically mean someone should be referred to be tested for COVID-19, said David Jensen, media relations coordinator at the ministry.

Story continues below advertisement
Click to play video: 'Saskatchewan’s health minister comments on HealthLine 811 backlog'
Saskatchewan’s health minister comments on HealthLine 811 backlog

“Based on these clinical assessments, and if warranted, patients may be coached on how to self-isolate or may be referred to the appropriate level of care based on their symptoms,” he said. Telehealth communicates with hospitals or a public health authority prior to a patient arriving if they are symptomatic, he explained.

[ Sign up for our Health IQ newsletter for the latest coronavirus updates ]

The ministry is working to allocate more resources to Telehealth to meet the demand, said Dr. Barbara Yaffe, associate medical officer of health, in a press conference. 

“We are aware of some the wait times being longer at Telehealth, and we are putting more resources into it as quickly as possible,” said Yaffe.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on March 11 that a $1-billion fund would be released in response to the new coronavirus. The government is allocating $50 million of that fund to the Public Health Agency of Canada for “communications capacity and public education efforts,” which could improve wait times, according to Health Canada.

Story continues below advertisement


Anthony’s ordeal began after he returned to Canada last weekend from a trip to New York City. He developed symptoms including a fever and a cough. He opted to phone Telehealth on March 8 and isolate himself at home to avoid infecting anyone else, he said. 

“I asked the nurse, ‘Would you consider me coming from a high-risk area, therefore I should continue to self-isolate?’ She said, ‘There’s no need,’” he explained. 

The Telehealth nurse told him the U.S. isn’t considered a high-risk area and he was told he didn’t qualify for a coronavirus test based on his travel history and symptoms, and it was likely he had a common cold. That’s a concern as some of Canada’s COVID-19 cases stem from U.S. travel, he said. 

Story continues below advertisement

As his temperature rose this week, he didn’t want to call again as it would take hours, he said. 

Eventually, after contacting a few clinics — many of which told him not to come in, and to call Telehealth or Toronto Public Health — North York General Hospital told him he could come in and a doctor would decide whether he needed a test.

“The whole waiting period is a self-screening mechanism… People will be turned away by the mere fact that they have to wait for hours,” he said. “That’s kind of alarming right now.”

Long hotline wait times in Alberta, Saskatchewan

Other provinces are grasping with similar issues.

Alberta’s HealthLink service has been criticized for long wait times or no answer on the line, Global News reported on March 10.

Hotlines in other provinces are also seemingly under-prepared, says Dave, 31, from the Parksville area in B.C. Global News has withheld his last name for privacy concerns.

While he only waited 25 minutes to speak to a nurse after calling B.C. HealthLink, the provincial health hotline, he felt the advice they gave was sub-par. 

Story continues below advertisement

“She was pleasant but told me misinformation. She claimed the province is no longer testing for COVID… and completely downplayed the whole public health situation. I felt that she wasn’t trained adequately to handle calls regarding COVID,” he said. 

B.C.’s Ministry of Health did not respond to interview requests by time of publication. 

Dave called on March 2 after having trouble breathing, and it was getting worse, after coming into close contact with someone who had travelled to Europe. 

Then, after visiting a walk-in clinic he claims he felt “humiliated and belittled” when he was scolded by a doctor for not staying home, even though HealthLink told him not to be concerned or self-isolate. 

“I feel as if the management team of this pandemic understands and is taking it seriously, but that message is not trickling down to front-line staff,” he said. “What if I was positive for COVID? I was just told it’s nothing more than the flu… It’s no big deal, etc. I think we simply aren’t ready for this.”

‘You’re getting different messages’

Although Torontonian Gilad Cohen hasn’t travelled anywhere, he called Telehealth on March 11 because he was having flu-like symptoms and a cough. 

He was told the wait time would be 14 and a half hours and that a nurse would call him back. At the time of publication, Cohen hadn’t heard back yet from Telehealth. 

Story continues below advertisement

While he waited for a call-back from Telehealth, he went to a walk-in clinic where he was advised to go home and head to the emergency room if he gets worse, he said.

He spoke to his doctor Thursday and was told Canada does not do broad-based testing and not to go into the emergency room unless he had shortness of breath. The doctor advised him to self-quarantine at home. 

The advice from a Toronto hospital was to not come in until he feels better, he said. The conflicting information and lack of access to Telehealth have been frustrating, he added.

Cohen is 35. He said his age is a privilege in this scenario and he is sure he will improve.

“But there are a lot of people who are a little bit older, who might need testing more imminently. If it reaches a point where they’re only testing people when they’re starting to feel shortness of breath, it might be too late for certain people,” he said. 

While he continues to wait for Telehealth to call him back, he says health authorities should work to become more organized as coronavirus cases increase in Canada. 

Story continues below advertisement

“I would just hope that they get their act together and start being more prepared. And also their messaging, no matter who you speak to you’re getting different messages from different people. And I’m not really quite sure what to do.”

Confused about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials say the risk is very low for Canadians, but they caution against travel to affected areas (a list can be found here). If you do travel to these places, they recommend you self-monitor to see whether you develop symptoms and if you do, to contact public health authorities.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing – very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. And if you get sick, stay at home.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

Sponsored content