Canada’s COVID Alert app has been updated to base its notifications on a more precise timeline.
Announced by Health Canada on Oct. 30, the new feature now allows people who have tested positive to accompany their one-time key entry with a date of when their symptoms began. The added information will help people better estimate when they were most infectious. As per the public health guideline, individuals are likely to be most infectious two days before showing symptoms.
But only 2,800 people have voluntarily input their one-time key in the app after testing positive. The number seems inconsistent with the uptick trend in new cases in Canada. In the past two weeks, Canada has had between 2,000 to 3,000 new cases per day.
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Initial resistances against adopting the app by various provincial governments have largely dissipated. Today, nearly all Canadian provinces are using COVID Alert. Health Canada says that as of Oct. 28, the COVID Alert app has been downloaded 4.9 million times. If every download corresponds to an individual, it would indicate that 13 per cent of Canadians have installed the app.
COVID Alert was developed by Canadian government agencies and Shopify volunteers with a heavy focus on privacy. Thus, it does not collect personal information and instead assigns every device a random code. When users spend more than 15 minutes within two metres of someone who’s tested positive, the app will send out an exposure alert through the app.
The press release stressed that “the Government of Canada established the COVID-19 Exposure Notification App Advisory Council to ensure the app meets the highest standards in public health outcomes, privacy and technology” to dispel conspiracies that the app is used to track citizens.
Despite praises by privacy experts and having passed three separate security reviews by the Canadian Centre for Cybersecurity, the Office of the Chief Information Officer of Canada, and BlackBerry, some Canadians remain worried that the app may overstep its intended purposes and are reluctant to put it on their phones.
Other factors also inhibit the app’s effectiveness. Because it’s up to the individual who tests positive to enter a one-time key within the app, it has no effect if the user forgets or doesn’t want to enter the key. And because the app relies on an active Bluetooth connection and location services to detect proximity, users who have one or both services disabled would also not receive proper detection.
Moreover, some users don’t see the value of having an exposure notification app and have complained that an exposed notification doesn’t do much to protect their health. The app’s robust privacy also means that health and government agencies have no way to use the app to better understand how the virus spreads.
Experts have underscored that leaders need to do more to assuage users’ fears to drive adoption. In an earlier article, Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-Commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, said that the app would not reach its full effectiveness “unless there is a vigorous effort to make sure people are aware of it and as many people as possible [to] install it.”
How many people must adopt the app to bring about its benefits is difficult to surmise. A study published in April had concluded that a majority of the population–over 60 per cent–need to install the app to stop the virus when it was still in its epidemic stage. But even back then, it had noted that lower adoption rates could still slow the spread. Since then, the study’s researchers have revised their model, now pegging the uptake rate at 15 per cent to see an effect.
Marika Nadeau, director-general of Health Canada’s COVID-19 Task Force, said in a previous article that “COVID Alert can help reduce transmission at all levels of uptake.”
Other experts also chimed in. “The more of us who use the app, the more effective it will be, so I encourage all Canadians to do their part and download COVID Alert today,” said Joyce Murray, minister of Digital Government, in the press release.
Canadians who want to know more about COVID Alert can call 1-833-784-4397. The app is available for both Android and iOS.