A senior in Lunenburg County is lamenting what she described as a "serious bottleneck" in trying to get answers from the Nova Scotia Department of Health and Wellness's COVID-19 helpline -811.
"I was on hold for almost seven hours off and on, when I had symptoms of COVID. As a serious asthmatic/borderline COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) of 74, I was extremely upset," Jane Moody reported to LighthouseNOW in an email.
"Fortunately, my symptoms were not respiratory. For anyone with serious respiratory symptoms this wait-time could be life-threatening. And no one is doing anything about it," complained Moody.
Moody documented her experience with the line, which the province advises people to call if they suspect they have the coronavirus.
After being on hold on August 4 twice, for a 45 minute span, she wrote to Premier Stephen McNeil, "my shock and dismay that this should be the case 5.5 months into this pandemic."
It took three more calls that day and a third wait time of 45 minutes to reach someone, according to Moody, adding that two, 15-minute wait times simply were disconnected.
"I started calling at 8:45 am and someone finally answered at 2:45 pm." Once connected, she said the procedure went well, she got her test, and it was negative "thankfully."
"But the point is reaching someone is extremely difficult at a time when people may be very anxious and afraid," explained Moody, adding that she had called the South Shore Regional Hospital in Bridgewater, but the local clinic was closed and her own doctor was away.
She also reached out to Halifax's QEII Health Sciences Centre, which, she said, put her through to the testing lab,"but none of them could do anything. 811 is the only recourse for anyone with Covid symptoms."
Moody recalls the nurses as being apologetic and understanding. "They all agreed it was a very easy fix: put in more phone lines and hire people to answer."
In response to her letter to McNeil, Moody said she received a call from a "'project manager'" with the Nova Scotia Health Authority, and was left with the impression something would be done.
"Wrong." Ten days later she tested the line, and again the following morning. "Each time I was on hold for half an hour."
Moody noted that friends are reporting similar frustration with long waiting times on the toll-free blood services appointment booking line.
LighthouseNOW reached out to the Department of Health and Wellness for a response. Marla MacInnis, a spokesperson for the department, said the province's 811 system continues to receive and respond to a high volume of calls from Nova Scotians seeking support with health questions – including screening for COVID-19.
"We do appreciate that there can be longer wait times, particularly during peak hours; however, 811 has been responsive to the evolving needs of the pandemic and remains ready to adjust as required," MacInnis responded in an e-mail.
According to MacInnis, the 811 help line has approximately 55 staff normally to meet routine demands on the service. Since March, approximately 80 new staff members have been added along with new telephone lines to address the increased demand resulting from COVID-19.
"There are now 200 active phone lines. Between 6 a.m. and midnight, there are between 19-26 staff responding to calls, with fewer staff after midnight," said MacInnis.