As Nova Scotia moves to reopen the economy and allow certain businesses to open up again, the risk of contacting the coronavirus remains in place and so does the provincial state of emergency.
In the absence of a vaccine for the coronavirus, Nova Scotia independent senator Colin Deacon wants to see a national contact tracing app put in place as another tool to help public health officials to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The prime minister has indicated that the federal government wants to step up its role in terms of contact tracing and the investment it’s making with the provinces,” said Deacon. “But it has to do that collaboratively and I want to help wherever I can.”
The tracing app would gather and use cellphone data to track and notify individuals on their smartphone if they’ve been in close proximity with a positive case of COVID-19.
Deacon, along with two other senators and Halifax privacy lawyer David Fraser, polled Canadians in a survey, asking if they would support using a contact-tracing app.
The majority of respondents surveyed — 80 percent of the 1,530 participants — said they supported the use of an app, while 65 percent thought it should be mandatory.
“If your privacy was protected I would be one the first to download, install and use the app,” said Fraser, a privacy lawyer and advisor to the survey.
“Principally, if people know that their privacy is protected, then they are willing to participate if it’s going to be a benefit to them or those in the community,” he said.
Public health nurses in Nova Scotia have been tracing the spread of the virus, working like COVID-19 detectives, says nurse and Nova Scotia COVID-19 response team member Monina LeBlanc, who has been contacting individuals who have tested positive.
“We ask a series of questions but part of the information that we are interested in obtaining is related to who have these people come into contact with,” said LeBlanc.
The public health investigators do most of their contact tracing by phone and go back 48 hours before the onset of the COVID-19 symptoms presented themselves and work with the patient to determine all contacts they made and subsequently reach out to all those contacts.
“There’s quite a bit of detective work going on and sometimes it’s really straight forward,” said LeBlanc. “But then you have those cases that tend to be a little more complicated.”
Other countries like France are getting ready to unveil a contact tracing app. Deacon says this kind of technology won’t replace health-care providers and those on the front lines doing the contact tracing work, it will only support that effort.
“We can’t replace the professionals that are doing contact tracing, but let’s make them better at their jobs,” said Deacon. “Let’s help them be more complete and faster and clamping down when there is an outbreak.”
The Nova Scotia department of health and wellness said it is looking at how other jurisdictions are using technology solutions to contain the virus but isn’t working on a contact tracing app.
In Alberta, the province has introduced a contact tracing app and is currently testing its capacity but software issues have been a problem, including compatibility issues and draining of the cellphone battery.
Deacon is hopeful a national strategy can come up with a universal app for all Canadians.
“We have to get our economy moving again but we have to protect Canadians at the same time and it seems like we are a long way away from a vaccine.”