Only two provinces are using Ottawa’s COVID-19 contact tracing app. That will need to change if it’s going to work, experts say

It’s baffling that so few provinces are using the federal government’s COVID-19 contact tracing app, public health experts say, throwing into doubt its effectiveness.

Newfoundland and Labrador on Thursday became only the second province — after Ontario in late July — to actually start using the COVID Alert app, which aims to notify people who may have been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

“It’s Sept. 3 and we have two provinces online. We could do a lot better,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases physician at Toronto General Hospital, on Thursday.

“It’s a pandemic, we’ve got to work fast, and we’ve got to collaborate and get things done efficiently…There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be available across the board. Let’s get it done. It’s September already.”

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

It’s unclear, however, how many people have actually been alerted by the app to 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 be mounting 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 certainly can work and there’s already early evidence demonstrating that it does work,” he said, pointing to an Ottawa case reported this week in which a person notified of exposure by the app tested positive.

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

For example, he said the app might notify someone they were near a person who tested positive for COVID-19, but he said the app wouldn’t know if there was a wall between the two individuals, or if they were both wearing masks, thereby lowering the risk of transmission.

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

“I’m kind of surprised governments haven’t jumped on, this is an easy win,” he said.

British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Maritime provinces have all shown an interest in using the app, and work is ongoing to implement it in those provinces, said Cole Davidson, spokesperson for federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu.

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

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

“That’s why developing a single, national app was important. The Government of Canada is working with partner provinces to spread the word that COVID Alert is free, easy to use, safe, and protects users’ privacy through a robust public education campaign.”

In statements to the Star, spokespersons for B.C.’s and Alberta’s health ministers said both 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.

“At this point, the federal government has not enabled their COVID-19 app in Alberta. You’d have to ask Ottawa as to why,” said Tara Jago, spokesperson for provincial Health Minister Tyler Shandro.

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“We would obviously like to seamlessly transition Albertans using the Alberta ABTraceTogether app to the federal app. We’re awaiting details from Ottawa on that process.”

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

The federal and Ontario privacy commissioners support the use of the app, with federal privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien saying that “Canadians can opt to use this technology knowing it includes very significant privacy protections.”

Jacques Gallant

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