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Was Canada’s COVID Alert app a hit or a miss?

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OTTAWA —
Almost a year after the federal government launched COVID Alert, an exposure notification smartphone app intended to slow community spread of COVID-19, the tool is still getting mixed reviews and some say it should be phased out.

COVID Alert was first piloted in Ontario in July 2020 and deemed an “innovative” solution by public health officials to pinpoint positive cases before they lead to major outbreaks.

The app uses Bluetooth technology to send out one-time key alerts to phones that have spent 15 minutes or longer within a two-metre distance of someone who’s contracted the virus in the previous 14 days. It’s only effective though if people actually submit their positive COVID-19 result.

As of May 25, it’s been downloaded 6,548,411 times and 33,168 one-time keys have been entered to trigger notifications.

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Colin Furness, an expert in infectious disease epidemiology from the University of Toronto, says those numbers are “ludicrously” low but not shocking given the design of the app.

“It’s so designed for privacy, it creates a bit of a creepy feel to it and also, if you get an alert…it doesn’t tell you when you were exposed, it doesn’t tell you when to get tested, all it does it create stress, it’s basically an alarm that says be stressed right now,” he said in an interview with CTVNews.ca.

“I think privacy is super important, but I think global pandemic means we need to prioritize a little bit, so I would have favoured a design that was more transparent…that was less hermetically sealed to make sure that people had as little information as possible.”

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He said he pitched to the Ontario government in July that they acquire data – like blood oxygen saturation levels – from Apple’s or Fitbit’s wearable tech to identify potential hotspots and guide community testing.

“We’ve got technology that people already have strapped to their bodies that actually could say ‘hey your blood oxygen is low, we have all your historical data, for however many years you’ve been wearing this thing and it just dipped for two days,’” he said.

“The answer I got back was, ‘We don’t know how to do that.’”

Furness argues that the federal government shouldn’t assign any more resources to improve COVID Alert and instead focus on helping provinces better their testing and contact tracing abilities.

“Contact tracing is vital for us to be able to continue to understand how new variants may spread in different ways or to new populations, we really want to know as much as we can…I will feel a lot safer when transmission is so low that we can actually do intelligent effective contact tracing which is not what we’re doing right now,” he said.

Asked whether Health Canada views the app as a success, a spokesperson said in a statement to CTVNews.ca: “The COVID Alert app is one of many tools made available to Canadians to help limit the spread of COVID-19. Improved distribution of one-time keys to people who test positive would enable COVID Alert to realize its full potential. As such, we continue to work with our provincial and territorial partners to increase their distribution and encourage app users to input one-time keys when they receive a positive diagnosis.”

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While nine provinces and territories moved to adopt the technology, B.C., Alberta, Nunavut, and the Yukon held out.

A spokesperson for the B.C. health ministry said public health officials reviewed COVID Alert “very carefully” and determined that the app “would add significant challenges to their work, without supporting B.C.’s ability to trace and identify COVID cases.”

Tom McMillan, the assistant director of communications at Alberta Health, echoed a similar sentiment.

“The federal COVID Alert is an exposure notification tool and it relies on infected users to send out an alert to people if they have been exposed – without directly involving contact tracers. During discussions, the federal government indicated that we could not run both our contact tracing app and their exposure notification tool at the same time,” he said in an email.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attributed the relatively low levels of engagement with the tool in part to the fact that not all provinces signed on.

“We know that the two westernmost provinces, B.C. and Alberta, didn’t choose to use the COVID Alert app, which was unfortunate, which was a gap that I think a number of people across the country didn’t feel like it was a fully national app,” he said speaking to reporters Thursday.

He added there is no “one measure” to protect people from COVID-19 and encouraged all Canadians to download COVID Alert as more social restrictions lift.

Aaron Langille, a computer science professor at Laurentian University, told CTVNews.ca the stigma associated with declaring an illness is likely a barrier to the app’s success.

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“All of us have apps on our devices that are not secure and they’re spreading our email addresses, they’re spreading our shopping habits and they’re targeting ads at us and we don’t really care…but when it comes to health, it’s the same rationale behind keeping test results secret from your employer or your neighbors,” he said.

He argues the government could have done a better job at communicating the steps it took to make the system secure.

At the time it was introduced, the government did make note of the measures it took to protect the data it would collect, stating that it won’t track a user’s location or collect personally identifiable information.

An advisory council was also set up to ensure privacy protections were being upheld.

“The COVID-19 Exposure Notification App Advisory Council will help ensure COVID Alert meets the highest standards of privacy, technology, and, most importantly, public health outcomes,” said then-minister of innovation, science, and industry Navdeep Bains.

The federal and Ontario privacy commissioners also issued a statement giving their stamp of approval of the app.

“Canadians can opt to use this technology knowing it includes very significant privacy protections,” said Daniel Therrien at the time. “I will use it.”

PHAC said it will continue to look at “evolving scientific evidence and public health guidance” with regards to the time and motion parameters of the app as the virus risk levels change with more vaccinations but that it remains a valuable tool to mitigate community spread.

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