Only two provinces use the Ottawa COVID-19 contact tracing app. That will have to change if it works, say experts

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It is puzzling that so few provinces use the federal government’s COVID-19 contact tracing app, public health experts say, questioning its effectiveness.

Newfoundland and Labrador became only the second province on Thursday – after Ontario in late July – to start using the COVID Alert app, which aims to notify people who may have been exposed to someone who tested positive for the coronavirus.

“It’s September 3 and we have two provinces in line. We could do a lot better, ”said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, infectious disease physician at Toronto General Hospital.

“It’s a pandemic. We have to work fast, and we have to collaborate and get things done efficiently… There is no reason why this should not be available at all levels. Let’s go. It’s already September.

The app has been downloaded 2.2 million times since its launch, according to Health Canada. A total of 125 people voluntarily reported an infection through the app, which is paltry compared to the nearly 3,000 positive cases identified in Ontario in August.

However, it is not known how many people were actually alerted by the application of a potential exposure.

“Due to the strong privacy and security measures built into the app, this data is not available,” Health Canada said in a statement.

For the app to be truly effective, more people will need to download it, Bogoch said. He added that the federal government should mount a massive information campaign, not only to encourage people to download and use the app, but also to remind them that there are no privacy concerns associated with it.

“If enough people download the app, it can certainly work and there is already preliminary evidence showing that it works,” he said, noting a case in Ottawa reported this week in which a person notified of exposure by the app has tested positive.

Infection control epidemiologist Colin Furness said he was skeptical of the app’s overall effectiveness, saying it does not take into account all of the complexities of contact tracing.

For example, he said the app could let someone know they were near someone who tested positive for COVID-19, but said the app wouldn’t know if there was a wall between the two people or whether they were both wearing masks. , thus reducing the risk of transmission.

That said, Furness acknowledged that the app could lead to the identification of some positive cases and suggested people download it as one more public health tool in the fight against COVID-19.

“I am a little surprised that the governments did not jump on it. It’s an easy win, ”he said.

British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Maritime provinces have all expressed interest in using the app, and work is underway to implement it in those provinces, said Cole Davidson, door – speech by Federal Minister of Health Patty Hajdu.

Quebec has said it will not use the app, at least for now.

“The more Canadians who use COVID Alert, the better the app will work and the safer we will all be,” Davidson said.

“This is why the development of a single national application was important. The Government of Canada is working with partner provinces to make COVID Alert free, easy to use, safe and protect user privacy through a strong public awareness campaign.

In statements to the Star, spokespersons for the British Columbia and Alberta health ministers said the two provinces support the idea of ​​a single national app and continue to work with the federal government.

Saskatchewan has indicated that the app will be available in the province in the near future.

Alberta released its own app, ABTraceTogether, in May, but last month the province announced it would adopt the federal version instead.

“At this point, the federal government has not activated its COVID-19 application in Alberta. We should ask Ottawa why, ”said Tara Jago, spokesperson for provincial health minister Tyler Shandro.

“We would obviously like to make the seamless transition for Albertans using the Alberta ABTraceTogether app to the federal app. We are awaiting details from Ottawa on this process.

A major issue with ABTraceTogether is the fact that the app has to stay in the foreground on iPhones with the phone unlocked, which poses privacy concerns, the Edmonton Journal reported.

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Davidson said the federal government “is working closely with the Government of Alberta to roll out the app and move Albertans from ABTraceTogether to COVID Alert.”

COVID Alert uses Bluetooth technology so as not to track the locations of individuals. It exchanges anonymized codes with nearby phones and alerts a user if they’ve been around someone in the past two weeks who has tested positive and entered a code into the app.

Federal and Ontario privacy commissioners support use of app, with federal commissioner Daniel Therrien saying “Canadians can choose to use this technology knowing that it includes protections. very important privacy.

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