It has been more than two months since the Canadian government launched COVID Alert, Canada’s novel coronavirus exposure app, but federal data obtained by Global News shows less than 10 per cent of Canadian smartphone owners are using the voluntary app.
Data from Health Canada also shows that more than 95 per cent of people who test positive for the virus are failing to report their positive diagnosis using COVID Alert. This means even if they’ve downloaded the app, their phones have no way of notifying others to warn them of possible exposure.
“The more people that have this activated, the faster we can get rid of this thing,” said cybersecurity expert Terry Cutler.
In Ontario, the first province to launch the app, just four per cent of people with a positive COVID-19 diagnosis had logged their test results from July 31, when the app debuted there, to Sept. 28, based on numbers from the federal health agency.
The government also told Global News as of Sept. 29, no one-time keys have been entered by users from the other provinces that had adopted the app — Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan. Manitoba has since adopted it as well.
Alberta told Global News it wants to use COVID Alert, but prefers its residents are able to “seamlessly transition” over to the federal app from an existing provincial app that cost roughly $650,000 to create.
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The province’s health minister, Tyler Shandro, said Monday that there were “still a couple of issues, still a couple of questions that were remaining to be answered” before the province could start using the app.
Quebec, which initially stated it would not adopt the federal app, is now saying it plans to officially adopt COVID Alert in the coming days.
The app uses Bluetooth to exchange randomly generated codes with nearby phones, and every day, it checks the list of codes from people who reported to the app that they tested positive. If the app’s user has been near one of the codes on the list, that person will get a notification from the app, warning the user of a possible exposure to coronavirus.
In a study published by researchers at Oxford University’s Big Data Institute in May, absent other types of intervention, such as manual contact tracing, about 60 per cent of the population would need to use a notification app to effectively control the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Another study from Google and Oxford researchers found that if 15 per cent of smartphone owners use the app, it could reduce infections by eight per cent and deaths by six per cent. But this is dependent upon people using the app to warn others of possible exposure. If people don’t do this, the app becomes far less effective.
Roughly 2.9 million Canadians have downloaded the app, according to government data. That’s about eight per cent of the total population.
But it’s impossible to say where the people who’ve downloaded the app live because of its strict security features, Health Canada told Global News. This means some regions of the country could have high user rates, while in other areas, it could be very low.
Why aren’t more people using the app?
Part of this problem is that logging a positive diagnosis into the app is voluntary, Cutler said.
“If you forget to put it in there or you don’t want to put it in there and you go and travel, no one’s going to get notified.”
Queen’s University infectious diseases chair Dr. Gerald Evans says “people are oftentimes reluctant to admit that they were in a circumstance where they may have come into contact” with a person who has COVID-19.
“There’s a lot of requirements for the user to do things … That’s really where the challenge is.”
The app has been hailed by privacy and tech experts across the country, including Ontario’s former information and privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian, who applauded how people who use the app are anonymous and how COVID Alert won’t store users’ personal or location information.
But a downside to this is the app neglects to provide the government with information about its users, depriving public health agencies of valuable information that could be used to better track and understand transmission of the virus.
This also means users will get limited information from COVID Alert about who has been diagnosed with COVID-19, and Cutler says this could be a turnoff.
“The app doesn’t provide much of what’s called utility,” said Cutler. “All I get is a possible pop-up that I’ve been in contact with somebody who’s been positive. I’m not going to know that it was Sally or John at that party that I went to that that was where it started.”
Another issue is the app doesn’t work for people with some older smartphones. The Ontario government says it “should work on any smartphone” released in the last five years, but some Canadians have said this isn’t good enough, adding that it should work on all smartphones, regardless of when they were purchased.
The app is not fully functional in all provinces and territories. Although Canada debuted COVID Alert as a nationwide app, for more than a month, key features of the app were only available in Ontario.
Global News asked the government if it initially planned to roll out the app nationwide all at once or if it intended to negotiate with the provinces and territories individually.
Health Canada did not answer this question directly, but said there has been “unprecedented collaboration” between governments and private corporations to design and implement the app.
Though people in the provinces that have not adopted COVID Alert are unable to log their positive diagnosis, Health Canada says people can still download the app and they will get a notification if they are near someone from another province who reported their positive test result using the app.
“This will support users who travel and live near borders whether or not their province or territory has onboarded,” the agency said in a statement to Global News.
The push for more users
Experts are encouraging all Canadians to download and begin using the app right now, saying if we needed an incentive to download the app, the second wave of coronavirus would be it.
“This could be the time when this app really shows its benefits,” said Emily Seto, an engineer and health technology specialist at the Centre for Global eHealth Innovation at the University of Toronto. “That is, if people choose to use it.”
The government also says the more people who use the app, the better it will work.
As for when other provinces will be onboarding the app so every Canadian can use the COVID Alert app to its full potential, Health Canada says it is confident that several additional provinces will “be coming on board very shortly.”
—With files from Rachael D’Amore