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OTTAWA — Manitobans can now use a smartphone app to help track potential exposures to COVID-19.

As of Thursday morning, COVID Alert will work in conjunction with Manitoba Health on a large number of smartphone models.

Manitoba officials say anyone using the app who is notified of such an exposure should get tested — a change from the previous stance of only get a test after symptoms emerge.

"It's great to have Manitoba on board, especially since we're in another spike in COVID infections," federal Digital Government Minister Joyce Murray told the Free Press.

"This is a tool to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the population."

The app anonymously logs when one phone is near another app-user’s phone for 15 minutes. When someone tests positive for COVID-19, provincial authorities give them a password, which they enter to have the app send an alert to anyone who’s been in close contact over the past two weeks.

The alert notifies people they might have been exposed, and pass along whatever instructions their province has stipulated.

"The advice would be to get tested and to self-isolate pending results and to self-monitor after that," Manitoba chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said Thursday.

The free app does not collect personal data, and is not used for contact tracing.

The federal privacy commissioner helped design the app, which does not track locations, nor does it send data to governments or nurses.

Manitoba Health Minister Cameron Friesen said any skeptics should download the app and read its disclosures before turning it on, as it describes what data is collected.

"People have every reason to be confident in this tool," Friesen said.

"This is not a GPS locator-beacon; this does not allow the government to store your information. Nothing in your advice can be gleaned or loaded; this only works on a device-to-device basis."

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)</p>

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)

Experts say the app will only be effective if enough Canadians download it, but there is no consensus on how many people, and Ottawa does not have a set goalpost.

"The more people that download it, of course, the more likely someone will be alerted to potential exposure — but anything is better than nothing," Murray said.

Three million Canadians had already downloaded the app prior to Thursday, when only four provinces had signed on.

So far, only 504 people have used the app to notify others of positive tests — one has been a Saskatchewan resident; the rest live in Ontario, which has had the app since July.

Murray said before opting in, provinces have to take the time to arrange how to distribute passwords for anyone testing positive, and figure out the guidance they’ll provide on the screen to people who have been exposed.

Already, the federal government started texting 204-area code cellphones Thursday, alerting Manitobans to the availability of the new app. It is part of a $10-million publicity campaign to convince people to download COVID Alert.

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In Manitoba, the City of Selkirk is requiring its employees with provided phones to install the app.

Murray said she’d like employees to encourage people to use the app, but it remains up to individuals to actually put in the notification if they have tested positive for COVID-19.

"People respond well to encouragement and incentives and they like the idea that they get to choose which apps they're using," she said.

The app requires phones that generally hit the market by mid-2015 or later. Apple iPhones must be able to run the iOS 13.5 software or a later version. The Android 6 software is required on phones made by companies such as Google or Samsung.

That’s because the app uses a lower-battery form of Bluetooth technology than what’s available on older phones.

Other countries have rolled out less-secure apps linked to Internet or location-tracking. Those might have worked on more phones, but Murray said fewer Canadians would’ve opted into such a system.

— with files from Carol Sanders

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca