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Coronavirus: Feds mum on launch date for contact-tracing app after Ontario pilot delayed

National COVID-19 contract tracing app available soon
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says a new nation-wide contact tracing app for COVID-19 will be available soon. Aaron McArthur explains how it will work.

The federal government isn’t yet saying exactly when Canadians can expect to download a national smartphone app developed to track contacts of confirmed coronavirus cases, nearly three weeks after the date the app was supposed to pilot in Ontario.

The voluntary contact-tracing app had been set to launch in that province on July 2 — with a national rollout to follow — but the event was delayed with little explanation. In a news conference with reporters on Monday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he understood that the app — called COVID Alert — might come out on Friday.

Read more: Kenney says federal government told Apple, Google not to work with Alberta on contact tracing apps

Asked whether that is the case, the federal health minister’s office didn’t confirm, but said the government continues to work with its partners in the project, including Apple, Google and the federal privacy commissioner.

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Challenges of developing contact tracing app in Canada
Challenges of developing contact tracing app in Canada

“We are committed to building and launching a well-designed, user-tested application that is secure, reliable and easy to use,” a statement from the federal health minister’s office said.

“To be the most helpful in our efforts to fight COVID-19, the app needs to be accessible and used by as many Canadians as possible.”

A government official who spoke to Global News on background said the app — built on technology developed by Shopify volunteers — will be available to download soon, but didn’t provide a concrete date.

Kenney says feds have told Google and Apple not to work with provinces on tracing apps
Kenney says feds have told Google and Apple not to work with provinces on tracing apps

The team has been fixing bugs, doing user testing and completing the necessary due diligence, the official said, adding the Canadian Digital Service — the federal agency leading the app’s development — has already fixed “several issues” that were identified.

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In announcing the app on June 18, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the app “functions entirely on an anonymized basis,” and it will remain up to Canadians to choose whether to download and use the technology. Experts have said the app’s effectiveness as a tool to complement manual contact tracing depends on its uptake.

Read more: Coronavirus contact-tracing app to launch nationally in early July, Trudeau says

If an individual tests positive for the coronavirus, they’ll be given a code and can opt to upload their test status anonymously to a national network and alert all users who have been near them in the two weeks prior.

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Based on a framework jointly developed by Apple and Google, the app will use Bluetooth signals — rather than GPS tracking — to detect and record when users’ phones come into close contact.

Are there privacy concerns with Canada’s new COVID-19 contact tracing app?
Are there privacy concerns with Canada’s new COVID-19 contact tracing app?

The Liberal government said the tracing app would “undergo a thorough privacy assessment” in a news release about the announcement.

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In a statement on Tuesday, a spokesperson for the federal privacy commissioner said the watchdog’s office has been “actively engaged” in its review of the app and is in “close communication” with Health Canada.

The spokesperson said the office has provided “preliminary recommendations” to the government but declined to offer further details at this time, saying it will make its views on the app public “as soon as we can.”

Read more: Coronavirus tracing app not yet OK’d by privacy watchdog, but outside experts give thumbs up

The office of Ontario’s information and privacy commissioner said it’s also been consulted by the Ontario government on the app. In a statement, the office said it’s reviewed “test versions” of the app and a provincial privacy impact assessment, and the latter will be publicly released once it’s finalized.

“Based on the information the Ontario Government has provided us to date and their undertaking to comply with our recommendations, we are satisfied that Ontario is actively considering and addressing privacy and security aspects,” the statement said.

App ‘not a silver bullet’ but could be helpful: experts

As cities and provinces continue to loosen and alter public health restrictions imposed during their lockdowns to curb the spread of the virus, people are moving around more and the stakes “are a bit higher,” said Zain Chagla, an infectious disease specialist and associate professor of medicine at McMaster University.

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Having some technology to assist with tracing is “getting much more important,” according to Chagla. He referenced a recent outbreak in Montreal, where public health officials urged anyone who visited a local bar since July 1 to get tested for the coronavirus.

“[In] that type of scenario … an app would have been a whole lot more useful to say, ‘OK, if you’ve been to Bar X or Y in the last two weeks, go get tested,’ rather than saying everyone going to the bars,” Chagla said in an interview Tuesday.

“That precision right now, as we’re opening things up, is probably a little nicer, to not only target people but target the right people to come get tested and isolate.”

How contract tracing is working in B.C.
How contract tracing is working in B.C.

That said, not yet having a nationwide contract-tracing app isn’t significantly hampering our public health response, according to Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist at the University of Toronto. While the app is another tool, it’s “not a silver bullet,” he said.

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Time and motion isn’t the be-all and end-all of contact tracing, he argued, noting an app won’t capture the “nuance” that human contact tracers can tease out through “sophisticated” interviews.

Read more: What is coronavirus contact tracing and how important is it as Canada reopens?

“You could be standing next to someone on a bus — you’re both wearing masks and you’re both facing away from each other. [Or] you could be standing on the bus kissing the person passionately, or anything in between. Your phone doesn’t know the difference,” Furness said.

“Using Bluetooth technology, you could be within six feet of each other with a Plexiglas barrier or even a solid wall… Bluetooth won’t know.”

However, Furness said a contact-tracing app could “maybe move the needle” when it comes to certain demographics, namely tech-savvy, young adults who appear to be flouting public heath rules and gathering again in large groups.

Ontario, for example, observed a spike in cases over the weekend in Ottawa linked largely to people in their 20s who had attended private parties.

Read more: 43 new coronavirus cases in Ottawa on Tuesday, provincial data says

Despite any limitations a COVID-19 contact tracing app might have, Chagla said he “100 per cent” plans to download it once it’s available. Furness said the same, even though he said he’s not pinning high hopes on the app for “pandemic management.”

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“One [reason] is I’m a firm believer that we should do as we’re told, and if we start to pick and choose which public health measures we’re going to accept, we’re all in trouble,” he said. “Number two, is if this thing doesn’t work or it works partially, the only way we’re going to ever be able to improve it is if people actually use it.”
Tech Talk: Canadian-made apps
Tech Talk: Canadian-made apps

At the end of the day, Furness argued: “Not all human activities can be replaced by technology and contact tracing, in my view, is one of them.”

“In other words, we shouldn’t be asking where the app is, we should be asking: ‘Where is the stable funding to expand the footprint of public health units to do contact tracing?’

“That will make a difference,” he said.

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-With files from Global News’ Ryan Rocca