They were one of the first health services in Saskatchewan to feel the bite of COVID-19 and resulting demands the pandemic would place on the health-care system here.
For HealthLine 811, the demand began even before the COVID-19 pandemic was actually declared. HealthLine 811 is a confidential, 24-hour health and mental health and addictions advice, education and support telephone line, staffed by experienced and specially trained registered nurses, registered psychiatric nurses and registered social workers, and available to the people of Saskatchewan. The service is free and offered in in over 100 languages.
A service that was used to taking 200 calls per day shot up to thousands overnight.
“There was an increase in calls from travellers and the general public concerned about the COVID-19 virus even before March of 2020,” said Vanessa Verkerk, director of HealthLine 811 for the Saskatchewan Health Authority.
People heard the news, and called HealthLine 811 looking for more information on this virus, information that was not yet available.
In fact, the first deluge of calls actually broke the phone system.
“811 went down, and a new system, a new solution, had to be found to get it back up extremely quickly,” Verkerk explained.
It was only a matter of hours before 811 was running again, and after just a week, a new system was launched thanks to help from SHA Digital Health, something that normally takes months – a remarkable accomplishment in such a short period of time.
At the beginning of 2020, nurses from across the health-care system stepped in to support HealthLine 811 with the increased call volumes. In order to stabilize the staffing environment and keep up with the public demand for answers on a huge range of questions about COVID-19, HealthLine 811 hired more staff.
Between January 2020 and now, HealthLine 811 went from under 40 full-time equivalent staff to over 100, and from an average of 200 calls a day to over 2,500 in late 2020. The number of calls ebbs and flows with the waves of COVID-19 in Saskatchewan; currently about 1,500 calls are received per day.
HealthLine 811 continues to be the first point of contact for the public with general medical questions or concerns, in addition to COVID related calls. Initially focusing on referring individuals for COVID-19 testing and assessment, services have grown to include health education and advice, information regarding vaccines and a centralized provincial intake for reporting adverse events following COVID-19 immunizations.
“HealthLine 811 is divided into three different streams of incoming calls,” Verkerk explained. “We have our Triage line, which handles calls from the public for all health related concerns, from newborns to geriatrics and everything in between. We have the COVID-19 line, and we have the Mental Health Line, which is staffed with registered clinicians trained to support callers through episodic mental health challenges, both related to the pandemic and everyday life.”
As with many health-care providers right now, the HealthLine 811 staff are tired, Verkerk noted.
“One of the biggest causes of frustration experienced by our staff is that they don’t have answers to all the questions the public has. COVID-related questions range from general information to inquiries about social media posts and news articles,” she said. “Our staff bear the brunt of complaints about misinformation that is out there.”
The sheer volume of calls that 811 staff field on every shift affects them personally.
“The clinicians who answer the phone at HealthLine 811 are your neighbours, your friends; actual people. Just like you, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on their lives, professionally and personally. So please be kind. We’re all in this together,” Verkerk added.
Debra Clark, Registered Social Worker, at the HealthLine 811 office pre-COVID-19 pandemic.
More information on HealthLine 811 is available on the
Saskatchewan Health Authority website.