Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a response from the office of federal health minister Patty Hajdu.
The Canadian government said the COVID Alert app was the next great hope in the struggle against the novel coronavirus.
But new statistics suggest so few people are using the app correctly that it has almost no effect on slowing or limiting the spread of COVID-19.
The public health data shows just 3.8 per cent of roughly 535,000 Canadians who tested positive for COVID-19 since the app went live have actually used it to warn others about possible exposure to the virus.
That means 96.2 per cent of people who could have used the app to warn close contacts either don’t have the app, failed to use it, or couldn’t use it properly.
“When we’re only seeing a small percentage, in this case under 10 percent, under five percent, of the population using these apps, they’re essentially completely useless,” said Dr. Craig Jenne, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Calgary.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last summer when the app was launched that it would help Canadians keep their families and communities safe.
As the number of confirmed cases surged in the fall, Trudeau implored people of all ages — especially young Canadians — to download the app.
“Young people need to download the COVID Alert app,” Trudeau said during a Nov. 27 press conference. “It’s a way of helping your parents, your grandparents.
“It’s free, it protects your privacy, and it helps concretely in combating this virus.”
The app was first launched in Ontario on July 31. Over the next two and a half months, seven other provinces and one territory activated the app. B.C., Alberta, Yukon and Nunavut have not activated the app.
Once the app is activated in a province or territory, anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 can get a one-time key, which they can use to activate the app’s feature and send out exposure notifications to anyone nearby.
The app has been downloaded roughly 6.3 million times, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). This means about 79 per cent of Canada’s roughly 30 million smartphone users haven’t downloaded it.
Health Canada insists the app is an effective tool for limiting the spread of COVID-19.
Beginning in early February, the government started collecting additional information from the app that will allow health officials to more effectively monitor its performance. This includes a breakdown of the number of people in each province and territory who use the app, plus the number of people notified of a potential exposure.
These changes were made despite initial concerns raised by privacy watchdogs and some politicians about whether an app might compromise personal information.
Global News asked the government to provide the newly-tracked statistics. A spokesperson for PHAC said that the information is not yet available, adding that it will be made public sometime this spring.
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The government also said the app will continue to protect peoples’ privacy and that the information that’s collected is in the aggregate, not about individual users.
“Canadians can continue to have confidence in the strong privacy and security measures built into the app,” said Natalie Mohamed in a written statement.
“The new metrics are gathered in aggregate numbers. It is extremely unlikely that COVID Alert users could be identified while using the app.”
Use by province
Downloading and installing the app on a smartphone is the same for everyone in Canada. This can be done regardless of whether a province or territory has activated the app.
But because health care in Canada is controlled by the provinces and territories, the way people use the app varies from one place to another.
In every province where the app has been activated — except Ontario and Quebec — public health officials provide a one-time key to people who test positive at the time they are notified. Each person only gets one key and it expires within 24 hours.
In Ontario, people may access their one-time key through an online portal set up by the government to deliver test results. One-time keys may also be accessed by calling a local health authority.
Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 in Quebec must wait to be contacted by a public health official and then has to call a toll-free number to get their one-time key, which expires after 24 hours.
The percentage of people who test positive and then use their one-time key to activate the notification function on their smartphone also varies by province and region.
In the Atlantic provinces, roughly 13.5 per cent of people who tested positive since the app went live have activated their one-time keys.
In Ontario, this figure is 5.1 per cent. In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, it’s 3.8 per cent. And in Quebec, which has the lowest rate of all the provinces, it’s 2.1 per cent.
What about other provinces?
Although everyone in Canada can download the app and receive notifications of potential exposure, only people living in provinces where the app has been activated can get one-time keys.
Roughly 205,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in B.C., Alberta, Yukon and Nunavut since the app was first launched. None of these people can use the app to warn others of possible exposure — meaning the rate of usership for these provinces and territories is zero per cent.
If data from British Columbia and Alberta is considered, just 2.8 per cent of Canadians who tested positive for COVID-19 since the app became available in July have used it to send out warning notifications.
Global News asked B.C., Alberta, Yukon and Nunavut to explain why they haven’t activated the app and whether they plan to do so.
A spokesperson for B.C.’s ministry of health said the province reviewed the app and determined activating it would make the work of local health officials more difficult.
“Public health and contact tracing experts in B.C. reviewed the federal contact tracing app very carefully and confirmed that the federal app would add significant challenges to their work, without supporting B.C.’s ability to trace and identify COVID cases,” the spokesperson said.
B.C. also said that it continues to perform manual contact tracing and that has hired more than 1,300 full-time staff dedicated to this job.
Alberta, meanwhile, gave no indication whether it plans to adopt the federal app. But the province has its own app.
ABTraceTogether is a contact tracing app, which, unlike the federal COVID Alert app, connects smartphone users directly to public health officials.
When someone with the Alberta app installed on their phone tests positive for COVID-19, they are contacted by local health officials, who then ask for permission to access data that lists the phone numbers of everyone they’ve come into close contact with.
Health officials then use this information to warn people of potential exposure and to provide advice on what to do next, such as whether to get tested and how and when to self-isolate.
A spokesperson for Alberta Health also said the province’s app can’t be used at the same time as the federal app.
“The federal government indicated to us that we could not run both our contact tracing system app and their exposure notification tool at the same time,” said Alberta Health spokesperson Sherene Khaw.
Nunavut told Global News internet connectivity issues and inequitable access to technology throughout the territories makes it difficult to implement the app.
Yukon, meanwhile, said its chief public health officer does not recommend adopting the app because it doesn’t distinguish between low- and high-risk activities, “which may result in unnecessary pressures on Yukon’s testing and contact tracing.”
“Given our low case numbers — currently no active cases — this is not a priority for the territory,” a spokesperson said.
Health minister responds
A spokesperson for federal health minister Patty Hajdu provided a response to this story after publication.
The minister’s office didn’t challenge any of the statistics provided by public health officials, but said the problem with the app isn’t that people are failing to enter their one-time keys, it’s that the provinces and territories are failing to provide people with these keys after they test positive.
Hajdu’s office said just five per cent of Canadians who tested positive for COVID-19 since the app was launched have received a one-time key.
This means roughly 80 per cent of people who received a one-time key after testing positive have used it to activate the exposure notification function on their phone, Hajdu’s office said.
The government didn’t provide a specific explanation why the provinces have been slow to get one-time keys to people who test positive.
One issue the minister’s office is looking at, however, is that in some provinces — such as Ontario and Quebec — keys are not provided automatically and are only available upon request, either through an online portal or by calling a toll-free phone number.
The minister’s spokesperson said the government is working with the provinces to make sure keys are distributed “more effectively” to anyone who tests positive.
“Minister Hajdu has raised this important issue with her provincial and territorial counterparts, and is committed to working with them on solutions,” said spokesperson Cole Davidson.
“COVID Alert is an important tool in the fight against COVID-19, and we all need to work together to increase its effectiveness.”