In January, Health Link reached a milestone two million calls from Albertans in just 10 months.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, demand for Health Link, also known as 811, has increased drastically, as people seek advice on how to book COVID-19 testing, quarantine requirements and vaccine bookings.
“We can’t even say the volume has quadrupled. It’s like nothing we have ever seen,” said Edmonton site manager Yvonne Ewanicke.
“I was here during SARS, H1N1. Daily, we are getting the number of calls we would see in a week.”
Ewanicke has been with Health Link for 20 years. She said prior to COVID-19, Health Link would get between 1,500 and 2,500 calls a day. It now receives up to 10,000 calls a day related to COVID-19. That doesn’t include non-COVID related calls, which average 2,000 calls per day.
“It’s been a hard year for us. Things change on an hourly basis. Everyone has done exceptionally well but it’s been a hard year, especially with that amount of call volume,” she said.
Jordan Sabo is an information and referral specialist for Alberta Health Services. He works at a Health Link call centre in Edmonton.
“I see it as a duty and responsibility. We have the power to either restore or ensure the public’s faith in our health care system,” Sabo said.
“We are frontline in the sense of communicating information.”
Ewanicke said the vaccine booking team currently consists of 400 members, with more on the way, to help Albertans navigate the health system.
“When I come in to work, often I see there are 200 or more people waiting in line, I’ll start by saying: ‘Thank you so much for your patience,'” Sabo explained.
“You don’t know what to expect. Some people can feel really frustrated they had to wait so long.
“Keep in mind, they have been waiting a whole year to book a vaccine as well.”
Sabo said tensions can run high when Albertans are trying to book their COVID-19 vaccinations. For example, he has spoken to people who have been on hold for an hour, only to discover they were not eligible yet for the shot.
“So, understandably they would be very frustrated. I try to apply de-escalation tactics in every call,” he said. “You need to be able to remind people that we want to help them and we are on their side.”
On Feb. 24, Alberta Health Services opened its phone lines and online vaccination booking tool for the first time. Within minutes, Albertans began reporting issues with the site crashing or not loading, and a busy signal when calling 811 to book appointments.
Ewanicke said they were offered more than 1.3 million calls between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. that day. Health Link was not able to actually answer that number of calls, due to the system being unable to support it.
Sabo was not on shift that day, but worked the following days. He said each day has been a steep learning curve for the team, as more information about COVID-19 comes in daily.
“The knowledge that we are building, we are learning it sometimes in the moment during the call,” he said. “One of the big things we’ve done is not rolling out a big age group all at once.”
“There have been some really heavy days. But they do get balanced out by the really good days,” Sabo said.
“When I was booking appointments for seniors in those first days, I was so happy. You can hear it in their voice. The sigh of relief that comes out once you book that appointment.”
Sabo said he feels a strong connection to his work and the people he helps.
“It really means a lot to me. It makes me feel like what I do might be small, but what I can do makes a difference.
“We all have pandemic fatigue. There are days that are tough.
“There are days in your calls you wish you could do more for that person. We just need to support each other and work as a team.”
Health Link is available 24/7 by dialing 8-1-1.
“I end every single one of my calls with this: ‘If you don’t know where to go, if you need an answer, if you are feeling anxious… we are always here for you. We always want to be able to help,” Sabo said.