A federal advisory council is urging all levels of government to do more to make sure as many people as possible are using the COVID Alert app.
In a report released on March 17, the council said using the app correctly is less intuitive than some people expect. The app also lacks important functions for front-line workers, and isn’t available in languages other than English or French.
The council said “some users” are deleting the app after downloading it because they think it’s useless, don’t think it’s working, experience technical issues, such as a drain on battery life, or feel anxiety about being notified of a possible exposure.
“There’s a lot of blame to go around,” said Dr. Craig Jenne, an infectious disease specialist and associate professor at the University of Calgary.
The advisory council’s report was released the same day that Global News reported less than four per cent of Canadians who tested positive for COVID-19 have used the app to warn others of possible exposure.
The report says that in some provinces, such as Ontario and Quebec, the process for activating the app’s exposure notification feature is more complicated than in other provinces. This is because people either need to log in to a government website or call a toll-free phone number to get a one-time key.
In other provinces, such as Manitoba and Saskatchewan, one-time keys are provided automatically when someone is contacted by a local health official with their positive test results.
“I think there is some blame that can be levelled at the federal government,” Jenne said.
“We’ve seen this sort of piecemeal adoption, even with provinces today, a year out, still not partaking in the national app.”
A spokesperson for federal health minister Patty Hajdu said the government is working with provinces and territories to increase the app’s effectiveness and to make sure one-time keys are distributed “more effectively.”
The government also said it’s encouraging provinces and territories that haven’t adopted the app to do so.
Advisory panel report
Roughly 6.3 million Canadians have downloaded the COVD Alert app. This means about 79 per cent of smartphone users in the country do not have it.
The advisory council’s report considered the effectiveness and social determinants, such as race, income and ability, for how people use the app.
The report found that more needs to be done to increase uptake of the app nationally, especially among racialized and marginalized communities.
There are also segments of the population who can’t download the app, such as those who don’t have smartphones and the very young.
The report recommended the federal government find ways to encourage more people to use the app, either through targeted pilot projects or increased advertising.
Governments are also being urged to make it easier for people who test positive for COVID-19 to access the one-time key they need to activate the exposure notification function.
Global News asked Quebec if it’s considering changing the process for accessing one-time keys in light of concerns the process is too complicated. A spokesperson for Quebec’s ministry of health and social services did not answer this question directly.
“COVID Alert has always been presented as a complementary tool to other methods used such as contact tracing and epidemiological investigations. Not as a replacement,” said spokesperson Robert Maranda.
“Of course, the hope is for the public to download the app and use it. We invite Quebecers to do so, but no one is obligated to do so.”
Quebec said roughly 6,000 have called the toll-free number to access a one-time key and just under 5,000 people have received one. The average wait time when calling the toll-free number is three minutes and 47 seconds, the government said.
Ontario, meanwhile, didn’t say if it plans to make any changes to the way people access one-time keys.
“All Ontarians who would like a one-time key (OTK) are able to get one,” said spokesperson Anna Miller.
“Ontario is the only province to have one-time keys integrated directly with the province’s online COVID-19 results viewer to ensure patients’ privacy and security are protected.”
Miller also said Ontario has led the country in the total number of one-time keys entered into the app.
“Ontario has been clear that the app is completely voluntary,” she said. “While individuals may choose to download it, there is no obligation to download the app or a one-time key.”
Waiting for other provinces
The council’s report also included new statistics that show just five per cent of people — 24,000 people out of a possible 535,000 — who tested positive for COVID-19 since the app was launched in July have accessed a one-time key.
About 20,000 people have used their keys to activate the exposure notification feature of the app, the report said.
B.C., Alberta, Yukon and Nunavut have not activated the app — meaning people in those provinces can’t use it to warn others of possible exposure.
A spokesperson for B.C.’s health ministry said activating the app would make work for public health officials more difficult.
Alberta, meanwhile, said it was told by federal officials that the app can’t work at the same time as the ABTraceTogether provincial app run by the province.
The federal government denies this, however, saying both apps can operate on a phone simultaneously.
Yukon said the app is not recommended by its chief medical officer and Nunavut said inequitable access to the internet and reliability issues make it difficult to implement the app.