N.S. parents waiting hours for 811 callbacks as students return to school

Testing has been touted as an integral part of Nova Scotia’s plan to manage and monitor COVID-19 in the province, but the process of getting a test can be lengthy.

At the peak of the pandemic, Nova Scotia was testing more per capita than any other province. While testing slowed down over the summer, it spiked again this month.

The microbiology lab was completing about 400 tests a day on average during early August, but from Sept. 8-15 that number more than doubled, with the lab completing an average of 930 tests a day.

This increase is causing delays in the process and it’s becoming cumbersome on families.

Read more: N.S. ramps up testing, completes more than 1,000 coronavirus tests for the fourth time

Schools and daycares require kids who are sick to stay home, and if anyone displays or develops symptoms during the day, they can be asked to leave.

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In both cases, parents are advised to call 811 for advice on what to do next.

Last week Jillian Fjarlie’s youngest son was sent home from daycare after displaying COVID-19 symptoms. Fjarlie says her son has underlying health conditions and coughs and runny noses are not unusual. To be safe, she called 811 for assessment.

She says she was lucky to get through quickly, but there were no nurses available so she was told to expect a call back within one to five hours.

“(They) didn’t call back until 10:30 in the morning the next day, so it was 19 hours for me to wait to get a call back from 811,” said Fjarlie.

She says the symptoms had mostly gone away by then, but she had already made alternative child care arrangements so she could go to work.

Because she was at work and not near her son, Fjarlie says she was told they could not do the assessment and to call back again if her son’s symptoms worsened or came back.

Coronavirus: Should kids heading back to school get tested for COVID-19?
Coronavirus: Should kids heading back to school get tested for COVID-19?

Across the province, MLAs say Fjarlie’s story is not uncommon and they are fielding many complaints about the process.

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“People not getting through to the 811 line, and then when they do having to wait days for someone to return the call, and then they get the test and have to wait days to receive the results,” said PC MLA Karla MacFarlane for Pictou West. “It’s very unfortunate,” she said.

Claudia Chender, NDP MLA for Dartmouth South, says the province should have been prepared for this situation.

“A month ago we put out a call to say we’re all going back to school and we know that the symptoms for colds and viruses dovetail pretty closely with the symptoms of COVID, and 811 is going to get flooded in the first couple weeks of school, we knew this was going to happen,” Chender says.

Read more: Nova Scotia has 1 known active case of COVID-19

She says the party has been calling for a more expedited way to get calls through the system but it didn’t happen.

“I think it’s good for people to screen and get through, but the process has to happen quickly, and right now it’s not happening quickly,” Chender says.

She says parents and teachers are reporting long waits just for their initial call to be answered.

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“It’s discouraging people from getting tested at all, and that’s exactly the opposite of what we want.”

Both Chender and MacFarlane say lengthy delays can put a financial strain on families, as they have to take time off to care for their child as they await instruction from 811 or for test results, which can take days.

“We know that not all Nova Scotians have paid sick days,” says Chender.

“It’s an extreme problem when you are living paycheck to paycheck and you have to take vacation days off or perhaps you don’t even have vacation days,” MacFarlane says. “It’s very frustrating and very stressful for families.”

Coronavirus: Nova Scotia’s top doctor calls on parents to ‘take some responsibility’ for school safety
Coronavirus: Nova Scotia’s top doctor calls on parents to ‘take some responsibility’ for school safety

According to the province, 811 has been receiving an average of 1,336 calls a day for the first two weeks of September, between 200-300 more calls a day than in July and August.

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Additional staff were added this week to respond to high call volumes and there are now 200 active phone lines, the province said.

The province could not provide information on wait times but says they can “fluctuate based on a variety of factors.”

Meanwhile, a release from the Premier’s office says that the federal-provincial Safe Restart Agreement has been finalized, and Nova Scotia will be receiving $77.3 million over the next few weeks, in part to increase testing, contact tracing and enhance mobile testing.

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