COVID-19 app of little use in Manitoba

Only a fraction of Manitobans who've contracted the coronavirus have been able to use the federal government's COVID-19 app to register their diagnosis and alert others about possible exposure.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/11/2020 (755 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Only a fraction of Manitobans who’ve contracted the coronavirus have been able to use the federal government’s COVID-19 app to register their diagnosis and alert others about possible exposure.

Four per cent of Manitobans who recently tested positive for COVID-19 were given an access code to report their positive test result on the COVID Alert app. Since Oct. 1, codes have been generated for 341 Manitobans, and only 255 of them used it to report their diagnosis in the app, according to figures provided by the provincial government Thursday. That compares with the more than 7,760 Manitobans who’ve tested positive for the virus since the beginning of last month.

Several Winnipeg residents who spoke to the Free Press said they had to ask for the code themselves after they tested positive, and then had to wait up to a few days or longer to receive it. In some cases, they said public health nurses and other contact-tracing officials seemed surprised by the request and didn’t know how to generate the access code.

Starting Oct. 1, the COVID Alert app works in conjunction with Manitoba Health on a large number of smartphone models.

Seventeen days after he received his positive test result, a 38-year-old Winnipeg man said he’s still waiting for a code despite asking for one repeatedly. He has since recovered from the virus and says using the app now would be “pointless.”

“I was always told somebody would follow up with me and get back to me with it, but as the days and time went by, it became clear that I was never going to get one. The further along it went, the more useless it is. If you don’t get a code right away and people know within 24, 48 hours that they’ve been close to somebody with it, it’s already too late,” said Brent, who asked that his full name not be published.

“It’s just another tool in the toolbox to use that is just being ignored, I think. It’s just not a priority, and it’s disappointing. I don’t know how many infections we could have saved with the proper use of this thing.”

None of those who spoke to the Free Press after testing positive wanted to be publicly identified in connection with their personal health information.

Another Winnipeg man who tested positive said he downloaded the app when it was first available but forgot to ask for a code. The 34-year-old expressed concern that some workplaces require employees to download the app and rely on it to indicate exposure, even though it’s up to other users to self-report.

“To be honest, I don’t think that’s the first thing on their minds, is to ask for the code. They should be given the code,” he said. As a result, the app isn’t reliable, he said.

“It’s being recommended by our government of Canada and the province, yet… it’s on the person who gets tested to ask for a (code), which is ridiculous.”

The app, which has been functional in Manitoba since Oct. 1, uses Bluetooth connections to alert users when they’ve been in the same location as someone who has tested positive for the virus. It only works if people who’ve tested positive log in to the app with their one-time code, provided by public health officials. Users must also have had Bluetooth enabled on their phone for at least 14 days prior to testing positive.

In an email, a spokesperson said the provincial government encourages Manitobans to download and use the app. Public health officials are supposed to ask about the app and offer a one-time code when notifying people about their positive test results, according to Manitoba’s COVID-19 response guidelines, and the spokesperson confirmed it is part of the “script.”

The app tracks the locations of phones relative to other phones, and notifies users if they have been in proximity to another app user who has tested positive for COVID-19. (Justin Tang / The Canadian Press files)

But when asked if each COVID-positive Manitoban is offered a code, the province didn’t immediately respond.

The Free Press has asked the province for more information about why so few codes have been generated for Manitobans. The provincial guidelines include instructions for generating the one-time codes; doing so requires public health officials to log in to an online federal government COVID-19 portal.

Problems with the app have been reported in various provinces; more than five million Canadians have downloaded the app, but only 4,168 have used one-time codes to report positive results. Health Canada said Thursday a provincial breakdown of downloads is not available for privacy reasons.

— with files from Michael Pereira

Twitter: @thatkatiemay

Katie May

Katie May

Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.

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