Island's COVID-19 call centre still plagued by long waits, technical problems

Island Health’s COVID-19 call centre continues to be plagued by hours-long call waits and downed phone lines that are leaving callers seeking tests anxious and frustrated.

Anyone wanting a COVID-19 test in the Island Health region must first phone its call centre at 1-844-901-8442. An agent and a registered nurse complete an assessment and book the test.

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The adult swab test or children’s gargle test is done within minutes at drive-through test centres, but booking that test can involve days of dialing.

One woman told the Times Colonist she began calling at 8:30 a.m. Monday after her young daughter started vomiting on Sunday night. She said she called 147 times over eight hours and was never told the phone lines were down.

Victoria Schmid, vice-president of pandemic planning for Island Health, said it was a “temporary technical issue” and that the health authority worked with Telus to resolve it. Problems plagued the line over an eight-hour span Monday. It’s the second time in as many months that technical difficulties have rendered phone lines inoperable.

“Our staff worked into the evening to answer as many calls as possible,” Schmid said. “This is an unfortunate situation and we sincerely apologize to anyone who has been impacted.”

Telus, in a statement, also apologized saying its call centre that supports Island Health “experienced issues related to unprecedented call volumes on Monday that were fully resolved by the end of the work day.”

“We have worked with Island Health to optimize the number of calls that can be processed, which will help to prevent a similar issue from occurring in the future,” said Telus.

The call centre can take 160 calls, after which people receive a message to call back.

Those in the queue hear a message with an “estimated wait time” but it’s actually the longest wait time. The fifth caller, for example, hears the same wait time as caller number 160. Island Health has said it’s working to provide a call-back option, but that hasn’t happened.

Grant Halcomb-Smith, 36, a financial officer, said he called about 250 times on Sunday, and each time heard the same message: “We can’t take your call due to high call volume.”

Island Health said there was a massive surge in calls on the weekend. The technical difficulties on Monday then caused a domino effect with a flood of calls — 618 answered — on Tuesday.

Halcomb-Smith said when he eventually got through on Sunday, he waited 30 minutes, talked to an agent, waited another 15 minutes, and talked to a nurse. The View Royal resident was booked for a test on Tuesday at the newly opened testing centre on the Juan de Fuca recreation centre site. The test result was negative.

Last week, Schmid said the goal is to reduce wait times to 20 to 30 minutes. That has not yet happened and call waits at peak periods can be two hours. Wait times became problematic in July when demand for tests ramped up alongside new cases as pandemic restrictions eased.

Call volumes have ranged from about 300 to 900 a day in the past three months.

A shortage of staff remains the biggest impediment.

Hours were extended for the call centre, which is open for calls daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., but the extra evening hours are allotted for staff to complete calls in the queue.

Those seeking general COVID information can call the province’s 811 health line or search the B.C. Centre for Disease Control or Island Health websites. The Island Health call centre is specifically for those with symptoms seeking a test.

Island Health performed 411 tests on Monday and 62,388 to date.

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