Emergency physicians answer the call to slow COVID-19 spread

In an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, UHN’s Emergency physicians launched PHONE CONNECT, a program spearheaded by Dr. Andrea Somers to distribute cellphones to vulnerable patients who are under investigation of COVID-19 infection but do not have access to a telephone.

PHONE CONNECT is a physician-led, innovative solution to a systemic need, where vulnerable populations, such as homeless peoples, have limited or no access to a phone to stay connected to resources, and are unable to reach or be reached by medical professionals. The current pandemic and the small window of time to slow the spread of the virus have exacerbated their need for connectivity.

Keeping in contact with these individuals, if they are under investigation or test positive for COVID-19, also assists health officials focused on contact tracing to track, and hopefully minimize the spread of the virus within the community.

“We’re addressing the issue of health equity, which is vital during a pandemic, but is also equally essential at any time,” says Dr. Somers. “It’s important to realize how disadvantaged people can be, with respect to their physical and mental well-being, when they lack connectivity.”

Dr. Somers reached out to Gareth Seltzer, a Toronto-based impact entrepreneur, who was quick to offer his assistance and connect with Bell Media and Bell Mobility to facilitate the donation of 50 phones and 150 SIM cards.

“I know firsthand the almost Herculean passion that the medical profession at all levels, from the front lines to the basement laboratories, brings to serving our communities. UHN also saved my life in April 2013 after I suffered a major heart attack—they are why I am alive today. So, it is a no brainer to pay it forward,” says Seltzer.

“While we are in unprecedented and challenging times, this is an example of ingenuity and our communities rallying together to support each other, including our most vulnerable,” says Dr. Kate Hayman, Emergency physician and Co-Lead for Disadvantaged Populations, UHN. “The old-fashioned flip phones stay charged for a lot longer and are more robust and resilient if, for example, they are dropped. Flip phones are reliable lifelines, even in unpredictable circumstances.”

PHONE CONNECT is also part of a broader movement at UHN Social Medicine where community partnerships are working to better address the social needs that are so vital to health outcomes, says Dr. Andrew Boozary, Executive Director, Health and Social Policy, UHN. “We are repositioning the human connection at the centre of health care delivery.”

Dr. Somers emphasizes that emergency departments serve as the safety net of the healthcare system, and the Emergency Medicine team at UHN have mobilized to go above and beyond their regular duties, inspiring each other to find new innovative ways to best serve the community during this public health crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a driving force for this project, but the team is hopeful this project will continue well beyond. Patients come through the ED and are discharged without the ability to reconnect; being able to connect with people will make a difference to their overall health in the long-term.

PHONE CONNECT is in need of phones to expand the program. To donate, please mail factory reset phones AND chargers (no SIM cards) to:

Toronto General Hospital,

C/O Dr. A Somers,

200 Elizabeth St., R. Fraser Elliot Building,

Ground Floor, Room 480,

Toronto, ON M5G 2C4

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