811 expanding further to meet increased demand

SHA chief medical health officer Dr. Susan Shaw. SHA photo.

The provincial government is working to expand its 811 service even further as demand continues to rise.

Last week, capacity was raised from 32 phone lines to 69 and again to 100. Work was underway Tuesday to increase the number of lines again and to ensure calls wouldn’t be dropped.

The province has instructed anyone who travelled or attended a large gathering and then developed respiratory symptoms to call 811 or contact their family doctor for further instructions. It’s also used as Saskatchewan’s general health information line.

Derek Miller of the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) said that work was underway Tuesday with SaskTel and eHealth Saskatchewan to get the expanded service operational.

“The HealthLine has been receiving significantly greater volume of calls then what they would typically see,” Miller said.

He added that the province has more than doubled the staff working that service, both in terms of navigator staff who answer calls and clinical staff who answer questions and direct people to the appropriate service.

The new phone infrastructure will increase the call lines to over 500 with the ability to increase those further and allow for a callback feature where people can be called when it’s their turn in the queue, as opposed to waiting on hold.

It will also allow staff members from across the province to provide support to the HealthLine.

‘We want 811 to be able to handle all of the calls that are going to come in,” Miller said.

“We are increasing capacity to a level that’s going to be more than what’s needed so we’re able to manage future call volumes.”

The province also spoke to other measures the health care system is undertaking to respond to current and future needs as the pandemic spreads. So far, 2,600 of the province’s 2,700 doctors have been contacted by email with instructions, testing referral forms, processes and the algorithm. The SHA said it’s working on a daily basis to improve communications both to and from doctors and the province.

Dr. Susan Shaw, the chief medical health officer with the SHA, said the province will be ready should a situation arise where more ICU beds will be needed.

“I’m actually an ICU physician as well. We do it every day, all day. We’re always managing and understanding who’s in our beds, what they need, what needs to happen for them to leave and what are the future needs of the day,” she said.

“When we go into sudden surges — which we have done, whether it be through mass casualty or through something such as a pandemic, we’re able to quickly mobilize and shift, not just in the hospital but also across other intensive care units across the province. We’re also able to open new beds, to open new ICU beds in the worst cases.”

So far, no Saskatchewan residents have been hospitalized from COVID-19. One resident was hospitalized for other, unrelated conditions while diagnosed with COVID-19.

The province also hasn’t seen any medical staff diagnosed with COVID-19 from on-the-job exposure. While Shaw said the province has good infection control guidelines and standards as well as ongoing education, as well as ensuring the right protection is available for the right people at the right time, the province’s chief medical health officer said, if done right, transmission to health care workers is unlikely.

“If you use the right precautions, you can eliminate virtually any risk of transmission,” he said. That includes wearing masks and eye protection and washing hands frequently. In some countries with higher transmission rates, medical professionals have mostly or entirely steered clear of the illness.

Miller added that the SHA is working on a list of what resources are needed. The province has said anything the health care system needs to respond to the pandemic will be made available.

He said he wasn’t in a position to provide an estimate, but that the SHA is looking at “all possible solutions and additional equipment requirements and supplies to allow (the province) to respond.

“We do anticipate a number of additional resources will be required.”

When it comes to manpower, though, the province isn’t worried about running out anytime soon.

According to Shaw, both retired and student practitioners are stepping up to offer their services.

“We have had many retired physicians, nurses and other health care workers contact us and volunteer that they ware very willing to be part of supporting the province,” she said.

While medical students have had their clinical rotations suspended for four weeks, many have also indicated a desire to help on a volunteer basis.

“It’s very wonderful,” Shaw said. “We are looking at how to best take their offers and bring them onto our team.”