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This article was published 31/8/2020 (417 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
As the start of the school year looms closer, Manitoba’s health officials are looking for additional services to help with contact tracing, but remain hesitant to jump on board with the federal COVID Alert app.
On Monday, Manitoba Health announced a request for proposal in search of further tools for pandemic contact tracing in the province.
Established in April, the Public Health COVID-19 Contact Centre supports public health officials responsible for making daily contact with isolated individuals who have been identified as close contacts of confirmed COVID-19 cases, but the province is looking to build additional capacity, the release said.
Meanwhile, Manitobans have been quick to ask whether the province has plans to sign onto COVID Alert — a federally endorsed app that lets users know if they have potentially been exposed to the novel coronavirus.
Asked about the app, which rolled out in Ontario in July, Manitoba’s public health officials said Monday local teams were still looking into its efficacy.
"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," chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said at a media conference.
"It’s not the big answer that we’re all looking for."
COVID Alert works using Bluetooth technology; smartphones with the app downloaded exchange information if the devices are within close proximity for an extended period of time. Users who test positive for COVID-19 can input a code into the app, which would then communicate an exposure alert to other devices that have been in close proximity with the positive case.
Roussin said the province’s e-health team are investigating ways to adapt the app for Manitobans, as well as ensuring it would not pose privacy concerns for users.
"I think it’s been discussed at all the levels of government as well. It’s out there, and so I can’t speak to what the specific concern is," Roussin said. "Certainly, there’s privacy discussions. From my opinion of it, I don’t think it should be a big issue but certainly it’s an issue to some to look at it."
Holly Witteman, a Canada Research Chair in Human-Centred Digital Health, based in Quebec City, said she downloaded COVID Alert while last in Ontario, and believes the security functions have been "rigorously tested."
"It does not share your identity, the amount of information that it shares is very minimal," she said.
One major concern public officials have with the app is its need for a broad application. Speaking at the media conference Monday, Manitoba Health Minister Cameron Friesen said he’s heard as much as 50 to 60 per cent of the population would need to download the app for it to be helpful.
"I think it would be challenging for any population in Canada to get to 50 or 60 per cent of the population wanting to download and use that tool," Friesen said. "Will it be some utility if we can’t get there? I think so."
According to data from Statistics Canada, 92 per cent of internet users aged 15 and up in the Prairie provinces have access to a personal smartphone, but those numbers do not account for Manitobans living in remote areas or without internet access.
Ultimately, said Witteman, a network-based app will be more successful with more users, but the app would provide a free, accessible tool to help keep track of exposures to the virus regardless of how many users it garners.
"This app is ready to go, it’s safe, it has been evaluated by people who specialize in privacy and security," said Witteman.
"I worry that provinces are making the perfect the enemy of the good — it doesn’t have to be perfect to be helpful."
At the end of the day, Manitoba’s delay to get on board with COVID Alert comes down to its operability, said Friesen.
"It is technical, the work to make such an app on this broad scale work with our systems because it only works well if it’s able to return that information to us in a usable form," the health minister said.
Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.