B.C. officials silent on rollout of contact notification app
VANCOUVER -- As the prime minister announced Ontario would have first access to the Canada-wide COVID notification app, B.C. health officials refused to say when the app would be activated for residents of the country’s westernmost province.
Justin Trudeau announced the optional app was available for download across the country on Friday, but that the functionality wouldn’t be available for other provinces for weeks.
Ontario co-developed the app with the federal government, Shopify and Blackberry engineers.
When CTV News contacted B.C.’s ministry of health for an interview to answer questions like when the app would be activated in this province, officials emphasized the app should be referred to as "a contact notification app" rather than a contact tracing app.
Despite a repeated request for a timeline, the ministry would not provide one.
The COVID Alert app is available on Apple and Android devices and requires users to open the app and leave it running in the background with their Bluetooth enabled to make anonymized contact with other activated apps. If someone tests positive for COVID-19, they get a code from their health authority that activates an alert on the app for those who spent 15 minutes or more within two metres of the infected person during their pre-symptomatic period.
Anyone receiving such a notification is directed to contact their local health authority for instructions. Exposure doesn’t necessarily indicate infection and there are many factors that could dictate one’s level of risk.
"If you are somebody that takes a lot of precautions and if you are out and interacting with people you’ve been maintaining as much distance as you can and wearing a mask, then you know I think public health will be able to talk to you and walk you through what you specifically need to do and so this is really only the first step in that process” explained University of Toronto epidemiologist and mathematical modeller Ashleigh Tuite.
She considers the app a type of early warning system that can warn people they may have been exposed to the virus earlier than health officials going through contact tracing, which can be a long and involved process depending on how many interactions the infected person had.
For example, in Kelowna, people went to several parties and social events where they had contact with dozens of people resulting in 1,000 people across B.C. in self-isolation.
Tuite considers the app one more tool for public health officials but says there are many unanswered questions epidemiologists are waiting to have answered.
"My biggest concern is how sensitive is it going to be?" she said. "Is it going to be sending too many alerts such that people ignore it? Or is it not going to be sensitive enough? Or is it just going to be notifying people who I already know and so it’s not really adding additional value?"
The Canadian app was weeks behind schedule and comes months after other countries have implemented similar notification apps. They’ve seen limited success with a lukewarm response from citizens who weren’t keen to download them.
Iceland had one of the highest participation rates with 38 per cent downloading its app, but most countries have seen participation well below that.
In May, CTV News was first to report that the province is quietly using loyalty programs and credit cards to notify people they may have been exposed to a confirmed case of the virus in various businesses, which raised concerns with a privacy watchdog. The app adopted by the federal government was a collaboration between Apple and Google, and the tech giants emphasized that they developed it with privacy and anonymity front and centre.
The province’s top doctor, who didn’t have a briefing on Friday to address the timing or details of the COVID Alert app, sent a written comment to CTV News via a ministry of health communications staffer.
“We are happy there is one national notification app being trialed and are looking at how we can use it in B.C. to supplement our important public health contact tracing in the fight against COVID-19,” wrote Dr. Bonnie Henry.
Trudeau said the holdup in activation outside Ontario is due to variations in how health authorities operate.
“What is needed to happen — and we're looking at the Maritimes next and a number of other provinces that are working very hard to align with this — is they have to make sure that their provincial and territorial public health agencies have the ability to give to anyone who tests positive a code that they can then input into the app, so that the system knows that their phone has tested or they have tested positive,” he explained. “It will hopefully put out the up and running for local public health agencies right across the country in the coming weeks.”