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  • Writer's pictureNikki Mantell

The fax about human error

It’s been a bad week. Not only did the MRC des Collines region earn a red zone status, but at Wakefield Elementary, 22 kids and their teachers were exposed to a potentially life-threatening virus because of a clerical error at a public health lab. What the hell?

Six months into this pandemic, many of us are already deeply fatigued with this virus that has upended our lives and makes us do mental acrobatics just to navigate the basics of day-to-day life. We are all being asked to endure the strain of learning new strategies and following new rules that impact our lives in big ways. The change and uncertainty is exhausting.

So when the most basic, most certain, most black-and-white, positive-or-negative error is made, faith in our healthcare system is strained to the breaking point.

Imagine the shock and horror of the parents of the Grade 2 student at Wakefield Elementary. They did all the right things: kept their child at home as soon as they showed symptoms just as provincial guidelines instruct us, got a COVID test and waited for the negative result from public health before sending their child back to school. Then the bombshell. Thanks to an administrative mixup - oops! - that negative was really a positive and an entire class had to shut down. (Full disclosure: I am one of those parents of the affected Grade 2 class.)

When The Low Down asked CISSSO about how often this kind of human error happens, the regional health board was predictably tight-lipped; predictable because we had been down this road before.

Readers may remember The Low Down interviewing Dr. Froimovitch about a “false positive” test that shut down his Chelsea veterinary clinic for three days in August. After many – too many – requests to explain what a “false positive” was, CISSSO finally admitted it was actually just human error. To date, the municipalities of Chelsea and La Pêche have had 18 positive cases of COVID-19 and two testing errors related to positive tests — that we know of. That’s a pretty abysmal error rate.

Readers already know that the Outaouais is way underfunded per capita when it comes to healthcare spending and surely this contributed to the error. But readers may not realize that Quebec is relying on antiquated technology. Test results are being communicated to different departments via – get this – fax machines.

Remember in the spring when the Quebec government announced it would stop reporting daily COVID numbers? The Montreal Gazette reported in July that this decision was made because Premier Legault was so frustrated public health authorities could not keep accurate records — largely due to the fact that information had to be retyped from thousands of fax machine paper reports. It’s no wonder human error is happening.

Quebec has long underfunded its healthcare system, especially in our region. The pandemic is revealing the serious fracture points of that negligence. It’s time to invest more, especially into the Outaouais.


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