Who gets called back? Montrealer's experience highlights confusion over COVID-19 test results

EDITORIAL UPDATE:  Quebec Health Minister Danielle McCann said Monday people should soon be alerted to their test results — positive or negative — within 48 hours. She said her ministry has organized nurses to call patients when test results are negative, and doctors will call when they are positive.

A Montreal man said he is frustrated by what he sees as a glaring lack of communication about who should expect to be notified about their COVID-19 test results.

After a week of waiting for his one-year-old daughter's results, he found out Friday that Sainte-Justine Hospital only calls people back if the result is positive.

"I was told multiple times that we would get the results in 24 to 48 hours, regardless of whether they were positive or negative," said André.

CBC is only using André's first name for reasons of confidentiality.

"There's miscommunication, that's for sure," the man said. "It's disquieting because I wanted to get tested at the start of the week, but I was told to wait for my daughter's results and then I'd get tested. I don't understand why they proceeded that way, but that's that."

Symptoms developed after cruise

André said he and his family flew to the United States to go on a cruise to the Bahamas during spring break.

A few days after they returned to Montreal, his daughter developed a serious cough. 

After speaking with a nurse at Info-Santé's 811 line, he got an appointment to have her tested for the virus that causes COVID-19 at Sainte-Justine on Friday, March 13.

Prior to their cruise, his daughter had an ear infection, so he was directed to go to the hospital's emergency department for the test so they could also check her ears.

The infection was still there, and she was prescribed antibiotics, said André. Although the doctor believed her symptoms were likely due to the infection, a COVID-19 test was done to rule it out.

André said he also asked to be tested because he had a slight cough, but was told no.

No answers

When the weekend passed and he still hadn't heard anything, he grew worried. 

His symptoms were worse, so he called 811 again on Monday.

After waiting for hours to get through, he was told he'd have to wait for his daughter's results.

"I almost fell off my chair," said André. "I think this is very inefficient."

By Wednesday, he felt really sick. He said his symptoms were similar to a bad cold or the flu. He called Sainte-Justine directly to make sure it had the right phone number on file. Again, he said he was told to wait for his daughter's results. 

By this point, his three-year-old son also felt unwell, so he called 1-877-644-4545, a triage line which assesses callers' symptoms, to double check if he and his son should be tested.

They also told him to wait.

Martin Chabot/Radio-Canada

Finally, on Friday morning, he reached an 811 operator who arranged a conference call with the hospital. To both their surprise, he said the hospital told them if he had not received a call, the result was negative.

"This is the kind of information that should be public: Sainte-Justine is not going to call you if the results are negative. People need to know. I didn't."

Although his daughter's test is presumed negative, 811 told him he and his son should still be tested for COVID-19 because of their ongoing symptoms. 

He expects to get a call back on Saturday with an appointment time for his son and was told he'll likely get a call for his own appointment in a few days.

But they will be tested at two separate places, Hotel-Dieu Hospital for him and Sainte-Justine for his son.

"Why we'll be tested in two different clinics, I have no clue," said André.

"So, for our family, that means we will have been tested at three different times in two different locations."

Change of policy?

Montreal's chief public health officer, Dr. Mylène Drouin told reporters Friday afternoon positive cases are given priority for a call back. 

"We have really mobilized enormous, lots of resources to do this screening, to do the investigation," said Drouin. "Calling back every test with the numbers we're going to do this weekend, it's quite ... it's impossible."

"I don't think we will have the resources to call everyone back."

In an email to CBC received later Friday, Marie-Claude Lacasse, a spokesperson for Quebec's Ministry of Health, said 5,000 tests for COVID-19 are being done per day. In the next few days, the province hopes to increase that to 6,000.

Lacasse said notifying patients who test positive has been the priority and is usually done within 48 hours.

Given the large number of negative test results, some people may not have been called back in some regions, she explained, but this was not  by order of the Health Ministry.

Quebec Health Minister Danielle McCann said Monday that the province has organized nurses to call patients when test results are negative, and doctors will call when they are positive.

She said people should soon be alerted to the results — positive or negative — within 48 hours.

For now, Lacasse said, if a person is tested for the virus and does not get a call back, they should still continue to self-isolate for 14 days.