As COVID-19 cases rise in Winnipeg, Manitoba now lags behind Saskatchewan in accessing the app that notifies people when they've been exposed to the novel coronavirus.
On Friday, Saskatchewan announced its residents can now use COVID Alert, Canada’s exposure notification app that alerts those who’ve been exposed to someone who has tested positive. On the same day, Manitoba public health officials — who until recently balked at the app — announced 40 new cases in the province, 29 of them in Winnipeg.
The province called the number of city cases a "concerning increase."
The technology, designed by the federal government to limit the spread of the virus, is already being used in Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador. On Friday, the app was rolled out by both New Brunswick and Saskatchewan. Users who test positive for COVID-19 receive a one-time code or key from their health authority that they can enter into the app. When the key is entered, COVID Alert will notify other users who may have come in close contact with that person for at least 15 minutes, and direct them on next steps based on their province's public health advice.
During a conference call with reporters Friday, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said from Ottawa the province is pursuing the free, voluntary app "ambitiously." The province's chief provincial public health officer, Dr. Brent Roussin, and Health Minister Cameron Friesen said earlier in the week they're working on it but couldn't say if the app will be available this fall or winter.
Winnipeg's 239 active COVID-19 cases by health district:Click to Expand
Assiniboine South 6
Fort Garry 14
Point Douglas 17
River East 50
River Heights 14
Seven Oaks 42
St. Boniface 8
St. James-Assiniboia 6
St. Vital 9
— Source: Manitoba's COVID-19 Sept. 18 dashboard
On Friday, when asked why Saskatchewan has been able to adopt the app and Manitoba hasn't, a spokeswoman for the provincial government didn't answer the question but issued a statement. "We are in discussions and engaging with Canadian Digital Services, Health Canada and other jurisdictions regarding the COVID Alert app."
In late August, after a midsummer slowdown in new virus cases, neither Friesen nor Roussin expressed enthusiasm for the app. The health minister told reporters he's been told at least 50 to 60 per cent of the population would need to download the app for it to be helpful.
"It’s not the big answer that we’re all looking for," Roussin said at the time. "That app’s going to require a significant percentage of the population to use it, because it’s not going to be mandatory and it’s not going to replace what we do with contact tracing."
So far, there have been more than 2.5 million downloads of the COVID Alert app, the federal government said in a press release Friday. Since it first launched, an estimated 260 people have voluntarily input their one-time key after testing positive for COVID-19, it said.
A virologist with the University of Manitoba applauded the app and its adoption by more provinces on Friday.
"I 100 per cent applaud this initiative," said Jason Kindrachuk, who is doing research work in Saskatoon.
"It is a testament to Canadian ingenuity to develop something like this so quickly so we can have some form of warning system that doesn't identify the individual," the scientist with the U of M's department of medical microbiology said.
"Having concerns about this app, relying on getting a lot of people to use the app as a limitation shouldn't draw us away from promoting and using it. There are going to be limitations like any new things developed for COVID. This is not going to be perfect," Kindrachuk said.
"Having any warning is better than nothing, especially when the personal cost is so limited ‐ we don't have to provide any identifying information." — Jason Kindrachuk, virologist with the University of Manitoba
"Having any warning is better than nothing, especially when the personal cost is so limited — we don't have to provide any identifying information."
COVID Alert was developed in consultation with the Privacy Commissioner of Canada and does not track a user's location or collect personally identifiable information. The app was developed by Health Canada, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, the Canadian Digital Service and the Ontario Digital Service, the federal government said.
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.