Manitoba has become the sixth province to adopt the national COVID Alert app, with a federal official promising that more provinces and territories will be joining “in the next few weeks.”
Marika Nadeau, director general of Health Canada’s COVID-19 Task Force, made the announcement this morning to reporters.
She also said the app has hit a “major milestone” with more than 3 million downloads. More than 610 people who have tested positive for the virus have used the wireless app to notify others that they should seek medical advice.
With Quebec about to open its health care IT system this week so the app can be used there, that leaves British Columbia, Alberta, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and the Territories who have yet to adopt it.
The app uses Bluetooth to send and receive random ID numbers of those who are in close proximity (about two metres) for an extended period of time (about 15 minutes over a 24 hour period). The app keeps a list of each number for up to two weeks. When someone tests positive they ask for a one-time code to activate the app to wirelessly notify those on its list they should consider being tested for the virus.
In an effort to increase public trust, Nadeau repeated what government officials have been saying since the app was officially released in Ontario on July 31: The app doesn’t any location or personally-identifiable information.
In fact, officials can’t say how many people who have been notified to take precautions have chosen to be tested and were found to be positive.
Still, Nadeau emphasized that “COVID Alert can help reduce transmission at all levels of uptake,” whether or not they are tested. “For example, if a user receives a notification they may decide not to visit their parents or grandparents. Which means uses can protect their loved ones from potential exposure.”
“We know that COVID-19 is specifically hitting young people hard right now,” she added. “This is why we encourage them to download the app to keep their parents, grandparents and community safe. COVID Alert is built with strong privacy protections and is a highly secure system.”
She also said Ottawa is spending $10 million on marketing to push greater adoption of the app.
A number of countries are using apps to help health authorities manual efforts to trace and constrain the spread of the contagious virus. In essence, it helps people remember who they have been in close contact with. There are two types of apps. Generally, both generate, transmit and collect random ID codes that can’t immediately be identified. However, what are called centralized or contact tracing apps can allow a health authority to access and decrypt the codes so contact tracers can notify those who may have been exposed to the virus.
Canada has opted for what is called an exposure notification app, which doesn’t allow health authorities access to the codes. That means contact tracing relies on people notified by the app to ask to be tested. It also means when questioned by health authorities those who test positive have to rely on their memories to recall who they might have been in recent close contact.
Nadeau also explained why the country’s second most populated province, British Columbia, has been hesitant to adopt the app. It preferred to have a contact-tracing app, she said. She also said Ottawa is considering adding “complimentary features” that B.C. and other provinces have asked to be added to the app. One is permitting a wearable wireless device for those working in industries that don’t allow workers to carry smartphones on the job, such as the construction industry.
It is also considering translating the app to more languages than English and French, she said.
However, Nadeau said the government’s focus now is getting the remaining provinces and territories to adopt the app before adding new features.
Asked about a report that the app has generated false notifications to users, Stéphane Boisvert of Canadian Digital Service — the federal government’s software developer — acknowledged there is a “bug” in older versions of Apple’s iOS operating system. He urged iPhone users to update the OS.