A St. John's mother who spent four days on the phone booking a COVID-19 test says the reservation system she was forced to navigate desperately needs a revamp.
Flora Salvo said the painfully slow process of getting tested — from her first call to when she received a negative result, last Saturday — stretched over a full week.
"Taking a week to get tested is very, very long. I think it's dangerous," Salvo told CBC News recently.
Salvo decided she'd book a COVID-19 test over the Labour Day weekend, when she and her two children developed flu symptoms, including a runny nose and sneezing.
"I decided to follow the government's guidelines," she said, a decision taken as a precaution that she now regrets after missing a full week's work and an appointment at her gynecologist.
Anyone looking to take a free COVID-19 test in Newfoundland and Labrador has to book an appointment through the 811 health line. Doing so requires making or receiving at least three phone calls — already a tedious process. But for Salvo, who tried making an appointment at a time when Eastern Health's phone lines were first closed and then reopened to a surge in calls, tedium quickly turned to frustration.
79 calls in 1 day
Salvo's unenviable saga began Sept. 6, the Sunday of the Labour Day long weekend, when she completed an online self-evaluation form and was directed to 811. An 811 operator took down her symptoms and contact details and told her she would soon get a call back.
Later in the day, a nurse phoned, went through Salvo's symptoms again and gave her a number to call to reach a second nurse — this time at Eastern Health, the regional health authority that would eventually carry out her test.
Here, the process hit a major snag. The phone line she was told to call was open only on weekdays, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., according to the recorded message she heard when she called. When she tried the next day — Labour Day — she learned the phone lines were also closed for the statutory holiday.
"How could it be closed?" said Salvo. "It's something that's urgent."
The next day, Sept. 8, Salvo began calling again. But because of a high volume of calls from people looking to book a test, she couldn't get through.
"I called 79 times [in one day]. I counted on my phone. My friend, she called 37 times. I was calling every five minutes," Salvo said. "Each time, the volume of calls was too many."
In the end, Salvo waited until last Wednesday — her fourth day on the phone — to speak to an Eastern Health nurse. That health worker once again confirmed her health and contact information and explained she would soon receive a final call from a booking agent.
After completing that last step in the process, Salvo was finally tested two days later — last Friday — and received her results Saturday.
Eastern Health increasing hours
A number of factors seem to have led to the delays. First, as Salvo realized, Eastern Health had not staffed its COVID-19 phone lines on the weekend and on the Labour Day holiday. The health authority changed that policy last Wednesday after seeing an increase in calls, seemingly due to students returning to school and changes to quarantine rules for asymptomatic rotational workers, who can now get tested after five days in self-isolation.
"Hours of operation may be adjusted to meet demand, as required," Eastern Health spokesperson Allison Barter said in an email to Radio-Canada. "We have expanded hours of operation to seven days per week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m."
Eastern Health CEO David Diamond was not available for an interview. But outside the House of Assembly on Monday, Health Minister John Haggie said officials with the health authority were meeting with his department to discuss adding capacity to the booking system.
"It became apparent over the weekend that despite the fact that they're adding resources, we're hearing complaints about wait times," he said. "The holdup seems to be in Eastern Health and it seems to be related to the public health mechanism there, rather than staff.… They're operational issues and we're making sure that Eastern Health is on top of that."
System 'should be speedier,' says Haggie
Haggie said changes were coming to the 811 line to triage callers based on a number of factors, such as if they are a rotational worker or a student.
"Something similar, if you remember, happened with 811 back in March when suddenly there was a really rapid spike. But within a few days 811 had responded and they were handling 2,500 calls a day," he said.
Haggie said the system "should be speedier," but added, "I think it's fair to say that every child with a sniffle will not get a COVID test and I think some of this is going to have to be expectation management — the message is if your child has a sniffle you don't send them to school."
The Department of Health and Community Services said as of Monday, the wait time for 811 to answer incoming calls had been reduced to 40 minutes. As of Tuesday, there was a five-minute wait time.
Followup calls for "urgent" matters from an 811 nurse on Sunday took, on average, 10 minutes, said Kathy Dicks-Peyton, media relations manager with the Department of Health and Community Services. Non-urgent followups took just over two hours on average.
As for Eastern Health, Dicks-Peyton said, there was as of Sunday an average wait time of 85 minutes once a person had successfully gotten through to the health authority and were in the queue to book a COVID-19 testing appointment.
The department did not provide data for how long it took people referred by 811 to actually get through to Eastern Health and be placed in that queue — the step that caused Salvo the most difficulty last week.
Hope for simpler system
Flora Salvo argues that while the system needs to be well staffed, it also needs to be streamlined. Her trouble getting through occurred at a time when the province had barely any active COVID-19 cases, but authorities may soon face a second wave of cases, as public health authorities in a number of jurisdictions have warned in past months.
"Calling one number, to one place, that would be way less complicated," she said. "There's no reason to need to talk to four different people. It needs to be much quicker."
Salvo said nurses operating the phone lines must also better communicate the rules for people waiting for a test, adding that she worries people will hesitate to get tested if the system doesn't become more efficient.
"The danger of taking so much time to answer [the phone] and talking to so many interlocutors is that people are going to lose patience," Salvo said.