Do I have coronavirus? Jammed public health phone lines leave Canadians in the dark

For days a Toronto man called two public health authorities, clinics and hospitals several times to ask what to do about symptoms he believed could be the result of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

After hours on hold with Telehealth Ontario, the public hotline residents have been encouraged to contact if they have symptoms like a cough, fever or shortness of breath, Anthony is now self-quarantined and is unsure how to proceed.

Global News has agreed to use a pseudonym for privacy reasons.

He claims he was told by staff at Telehealth that he would be connected with a health professional within seven to 10 hours.

“This shows the ill-preparedness of the medical care system, including clinics,” he said. “On the other hand, it also shows the lack of transparency of information provided by government to medical communities and the public as a whole.”

As confirmed cases of COVID-19 continues to rise in Canada, hotlines in each province are often jammed. More than 140 cases have been reported across the country. 

Multiple sources told Global News Telehealth Ontario’s wait times varied between six and 14 hours. Sources said they did not have issues with Teleheath’s advice, despite waiting for long periods of time. 

Ontario’s Ministry of Health told Global News via email that they’ve experienced a “significant increase in call volume” related to influenza and COVID-19 since Jan. 25.

More than 5,200 calls have been made to the service on these topics, they said. Whether they recommend someone be tested for COVID-19 is done on a case-by-case basis on risk assessment and are referred either to an emergency room, or their local public health unit, depending on how severe the symptoms are.

Ontario will also launch a tool in the coming days on their website containing a COVID-19 questionnaire to help patients assess their risk without a phone call. A cough or a fever doesn’t automatically mean someone should be referred to be tested for COVID-19, said David Jensen, media relations coordinator at the ministry.

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