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Feds hope to endorse single contact tracing app: PM

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to a question from the media during a daily news conference outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, Friday May 22, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to a question from the media during a daily news conference outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, Friday May 22, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA - Canada may soon be implementing a more unified approach to tracing the close contacts of COVID-19 cases, including a federally recommended app to track people's movements.

The government is eyeing several smartphone apps to help with contact tracing efforts, with the aim of finding one that stands apart.

Trudeau said many apps developed to date drain phone batteries because they must be open in order to work, but Google and Apple are working on a fix.

"It is our expectation that when the time comes for that to be released, we will be able to recommend strongly to Canadians a particular app that will help us manage the spread of COVID-19," he said.

The idea behind the app is to track anyone the user has been in close contact with, and alert them if they have been near someone with a confirmed or presumed case of the viral disease.

Several provinces have looked at developing their own contact tracing apps, including one already in use in Alberta. Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he supports a national, co-ordinated approach.

"When we fully reopen the economy and people are flying, lets say from Vancouver to Toronto to Calgary ... those apps have to be able to talk to each other," Ford said.

Ontario is actively looking for an app that fits its own needs and respects user privacy, but Ford said all the provinces and the federal government have agreed to look at how they can standardize the technology province to province.

Public health officials have cautioned against putting too much reliance on phone apps when it comes to contact tracing. Canada's deputy chief public health officer Dr. Howard Njoo warned Friday they are not a silver bullet.

Phones may register a close contact between a customer and a checkout clerk at the grocery store, for example, even though there's a barrier between them, he said.

Ottawa has also offered to help trace contacts the old-fashioned way.

More than 200 federal contact tracers are helping public health authorities in Ontario. Trudeau said they're ready to make thousands more calls a day when any province asks.

Statistics Canada has also provided 1,700 interviewers who can make 20,000 calls per day to help with contact tracing efforts, he said.

"We need to get in touch with everyone who may have been exposed to the virus to make sure they quarantine and monitor themselves for symptoms or get tested," Trudeau said in his daily briefing Friday.

"These federal resources are available to assist provinces and territories with any surges, or backlogs or challenges they have in contact tracing."

For contact tracing to be effective, Canada also needs to step up its testing for the virus, Trudeau said. Canada nominally has the capacity to test 60,000 people per day for COVID-19, but has been averaging only about 28,000 tests per day.

The prime minister said the government is still working to find out exactly what help the provinces need most.

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu said Friday her department has been working with provinces to make sure they have the materials needed to meet their testing goals, including swabs, reagents, and people to do the work.

"We see ourselves as building capacity for all the provinces and territories to test to their fullest need," she told the House of Commons committee on government operations.

Each province has its own testing strategy, and Ottawa must adapt its support to meet their individual needs, she said.

Testing 60,000 people per day is not a "magic number," said Njoo, and Canada doesn't necessarily need to use the full capacity of its labs to test effectively.

In British Columbia, where they have done a "very good job" flattening the curve and have relatively few cases compared to other provinces, Njoo said they are currently testing fewer people than Ontario or Quebec.

The strategy there is to test the right people at the right time to catch infections, he said, and to do otherwise would mean wasted tests that yield false results.

Still, he said it's comforting to know Canada has a greater capacity if there is a major surge in potential cases.

Canadian governments are also looking for ways to consolidate their technological approach to COVID-19 with improved data sharing, Njoo said.

The federal and provincial governments have been criticized for decades for archaic data systems that make sharing information difficult at the best of times.

While provinces and territories have co-ordinated with the Public Health Agency of Canada to get faster access to case numbers for COVID-19 during the pandemic, detailed epidemiological data is still lacking.

Njoo said there are discussions about standardizing data collection across regions to make it easier to share information.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 22, 2020.

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