COVID-19

“I called 75 times”: Severe backups at testing call centre hinder Island’s COVID-19 response

While rapid testing was key to BC’s early success in fighting COVID-19, this has now given way to some of the longest wait times in the country

By Tori Marlan
September 29, 2020
COVID-19

“I called 75 times”: Severe backups at testing call centre hinder Island’s COVID-19 response

While rapid testing was key to BC’s early success in fighting COVID-19, this has now given way to some of the longest wait times in the country

By Tori Marlan
Sep 29, 2020
An Island Health employee in full PPE poses at a drive-through COVID-19 testing facility established in June. Severe backlogs in Island Health's test scheduling system is now threatening to alter proper reporting of confirmed COVID-19 cases (Photo by Island Health).
COVID-19

“I called 75 times”: Severe backups at testing call centre hinder Island’s COVID-19 response

While rapid testing was key to BC’s early success in fighting COVID-19, this has now given way to some of the longest wait times in the country

By Tori Marlan
September 29, 2020
“I called 75 times”: Severe backups at testing call centre hinder Island’s COVID-19 response
An Island Health employee in full PPE poses at a drive-through COVID-19 testing facility established in June. Severe backlogs in Island Health's test scheduling system is now threatening to alter proper reporting of confirmed COVID-19 cases (Photo by Island Health).

Ten days after school started, Joy Beauchamp realized her seven-year-old son needed a COVID-19 test. He woke up feeling “not quite right,” she recalls. By 9am, he had a bellyache and a fever, so she called Island Health’s coronavirus hotline to book an appointment. Without a negative test, her son wouldn’t be able to return to school for ten days. But Beauchamp couldn’t get a phone call through to the COVID-19 testing call centre. “I called 75 times,” she says. “Each time it would either hang up on me or say we’re currently experiencing a high volume of calls, so call back later.” She says it took another day, and 148 more calls, before she was able to get an appointment for her son.

Only people with symptoms can get a COVID-19 test in BC, and the only way to get one is by booking an appointment through the call centre or a primary care provider. But many have described booking through the call centre as a daylong—or even several-day—hassle, raising concerns that potentially infected British Columbians might be opting to forgo the test, which could result in artificially low case numbers throughout the province. 

On the first day Beauchamp called the hotline, September 21, it was experiencing a “temporary technical issue,” according to Island Health; a “large spike” in the number of calls had crashed the hotline, causing “a service interruption.” No one was able to get through. 

Screenshot from Joy Beauchamp's phone showing just some of the calls she made to the Island Health COVID testing hotline (Courtesy of Joy Beauchamp).

But even on days without technical issues, people have reported having trouble connecting to the call centre. Oak Bay’s Janine Slevinsky called the hotline about three weeks ago, after she and her six-year-old daughter developed several symptoms of COVID-19, including a cough, fever, and sore throat. Her younger daughter, who has asthma, had severe diarrhea, a cough, and the sniffles. “I spent literally the whole day calling every five minutes,” she says. Shortly after she got through at 4pm, she was disconnected: “I called back and got a message that the lines were closed for the day. I just wanted to throw the phone at the wall.” The following day, she called every half hour, to no avail. On the third day, she was able to bypass the call centre by going through her doctor.

Doctors, however, may not know that they’re able to book the tests, which can only be done at designated sites (there are 21 on the Island). One woman who contacted Capital Daily and says she’s in a high-risk category for COVID-19 spent four days last week calling the hotline. She eventually gave up and called her doctor’s office, speaking first with an on-call physician and later with her own GP. Both said the same thing: They had no special power to get her scheduled for a test. 

Even those lucky enough to get through to the call centre in a short amount of time have reported intolerably long periods on hold. “I waited 3 hours for a human,” one woman wrote on the Facebook group Oak Bay Local. That person then put her on hold for an hour to wait for a nurse. After being screened by the nurse, she waited for a booking clerk. “All in all [it] was about 5 hours on the phone to actually book the test,” she wrote.

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Stephanie Frig, a sous chef in Victoria, says she called the hotline on August 23 after returning from a road trip with a sore throat. It took almost 100 phone calls before she was able to connect to the call centre. “I think I was on the phone for three hours,” she says. “A good halfway through I’m like, ‘Why am I doing this again?’” To pass the time she watched Netflix, struggling to ignore the elevator music in her ear.

Those who don’t need the test to return to work or school might not be willing to put up with such frustrations. Slevinsky, who explains that she was able to spend as much time on hold as she did because she’s a stay-at-home mom, no longer trusts the official COVID-19 case count on the Island. “I can imagine a college student saying, ‘This is bogus, hanging up the phone, and carrying on with their life,” she says.

“This is a big concern,” Victoria Schmid, Island Health’s vice president of pandemic planning, wrote in an email to Capital Daily. “COVID-19 testing is a key element in our pandemic response and we need to get it right.”

Without the ability to be quickly tested, people will have their lives unnecessarily disrupted. Mild colds will cause them to miss work or school. Worse, without a definitive diagnosis, they may wrongly assume they’re not contagious and fail to self-isolate.

The volume of calls to the hotline has increased in recent weeks, according to Island Health—it’s now receiving an average of 450 to 500 calls per day, and the average wait time is between 50 minutes and two and a half hours. To reduce the wait times, the health authority is concentrating its efforts on bolstering staffing rather than on introducing a call-back feature or online booking.

Island Health says that to meet the demand, it needs about 40 nurses working the hotline (it currently has between 22 and 25) and 26 registration clerks (it currently has between 14 and 17). The health authority is actively recruiting and hiring: 15 nurses are in training “as casuals” and 14 more are slated for training over the next two weeks. In the meantime, Island Health recommends that people call in the afternoons or “other off-peak times,” as mornings tend to be busiest. 

The good news is that once an appointment is booked, the testing process goes quickly. Beauchamp was able to take her son for a test the day after she got through to the hotline—and she received his negative result the following day.

tori@capnews.ca