Manitoba’s health minister isn’t prepared to write off a federal COVID-19 contact-tracing app after one of her provincial counterparts claimed Ottawa had quietly abandoned it.

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Health Minister Audrey Gordon

MIKAELA MACKENZIE/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Health Minister Audrey Gordon

Manitoba’s health minister isn’t prepared to write off a federal COVID-19 contact-tracing app after one of her provincial counterparts claimed Ottawa had quietly abandoned it.

Audrey Gordon still had COVID Alert on her smartphone Thursday and described the app as being important to efforts to reduce the spread of the virus.

"I certainly don’t think it’s a negative to have the infrastructure there," said Gordon. "It’s built and we can ramp up the use of that very quickly. I think it’s a good tool."

Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux (Winnipeg North), speaking alongside Gordon at a virtual press conference to announce new safe isolation sites in Manitoba, acknowledged the uptake of the app "wasn’t high enough."

He expressed hope that participation, which is voluntary, will increase.

Gordon and Lamoureux made the comments a day after Dr. John Haggie, Newfoundland and Labrador’s health minister, claimed Ottawa "gave up" on the app several months ago because participation had dwindled.

"They’ve stopped supporting it and they’ve stopped updating their dashboard," Haggie said during a virtual public-health briefing. "The uptake was so low that the effort to maintain these sites was unreasonable, given the fact it was yielding so low."

A reporter had asked him if Newfoundland and Labrador’s public-health authorities were still issuing unique codes, known as one-time keys, to people who test positive for coronavirus.

In response to Haggie’s comments, a spokesman for Health Canada said the app was still active and data on how many people use it was being updated monthly.

"The Government of Canada still supports the COVID Alert app," the spokesman said.

In a statement Thursday, Newfoundland and Labrador’s Department of Health and Community Services said Haggie did not have the most recent data when he spoke to reporters.

The department said it had been assured the app "remains active" and encouraged residents to continue using it.

Canadians who receive a positive polymerase chain reaction molecular test result from a public-health authority can obtain and enter a one-time key within the free app to self-report an infection.

COVID Alert, which cost about $3.5 million to develop, uses Bluetooth to identify other users who were exposed and is designed to send notifications to those people.

An exposure is recorded when an app user is within two metres of an infected person for at least 15 minutes.

There have been concerns the app may not be as effective as intended due to PCR testing delays and the fact one-time keys are not given to people who test themselves using at-home rapid antigen kits.

COVID Alert has been downloaded 6.7 million times as of Dec. 6, according to Ottawa. More than 37,000 one-time keys have been issued since the cross-country rollout began in Ontario in July 2020.

In November, 869 one-time keys were entered into the app to notify other users of potential exposure, the Health Canada spokesman said.

The country reported more than 77,000 cases that month.

Health Canada did not have Manitoba-specific data available Thursday, including the number of codes issued to people who have tested positive for COVID within the province.

A spokesperson for Manitoba’s government said the province did not have access to that kind of data.

Canada has recorded more than two million confirmed cases of the virus, meaning a very small percentage has been self-reported via the app.

Alberta, British Columbia, Nunavut and Yukon haven’t enabled reporting of positive tests through COVID Alert.

Addressing potential privacy concerns, Ottawa assured Canadians the app does not collect personal information or health data and does not track things such as names, addresses, stored contacts or locations.

Amid a surge of infections, Manitoba shifted gears earlier this month and announced public-health officials will no longer notify most close contacts when someone tests positive.

Infected Manitobans will be asked to notify contacts themselves.

chris.kitching@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @chriskitching