Rollout of COVID alert app remains murky for B.C.

When a national contact-tracing app was announced in June, officials in Ottawa emphasized it would roll out first in Ontario, where early testing was taking place.

But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau added at the time B.C had been working closely with the app partners — Canadian Digital Service, the Government of Ontario, BlackBerry Ltd. and Shopify Inc. — and signalled the COVID Alert app would soon hit the West Coast.

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Three months later and B.C. is still without the contact-tracing app that’s already been deployed to half the provinces.

Capacity and technical issues are not behind the slow deployment to B.C, according to Health Canada.

“It's just ensuring that each of the public health units are able to be trained and do user testing,” spokeswoman Marika Nadeau said during an October 1 technical briefing.

“Right now we're we are working with British Columbia to onboard … We are assessing additional or complementary features that could be part of the application.”

British Columbians can download the app but it will not report a diagnosis to local health authorities.

But in Ontario, where the app launched in July, a health-care professional can help a patient anonymously upload their status on the COVID Alert app if they get a positive test. 

The app uses Bluetooth to exchange random codes with nearby phones, alerting others who’ve downloaded it if they’ve been in close contact with a COVID-19-positive patient.

No personal information is ever shared and no location services information is collected.

The app does not share any identifiers such as a phone number or address.

Instead, it generates a randomized code used for alerts.

The code is stored in what the prime minister described as a secure national database.

“It is an ongoing discussion,” B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said during a COVID-19 update last week.

“The team with the federal government is working with individual provinces sequentially, so we are on that list, but we are also working with them to make some adjustments that will meet our needs. Some of which they're working out right now with Newfoundland and Labrador, who is the next on the list.”

Henry said she is “not exactly sure when” the app will be ready for B.C.

“But I know we are on the to-do list for some time in the coming weeks. And I will say with the caveat that as long as it can meet the needs that we have, to supplement what we are doing in our contact tracing here,” she added.

With a provincial election underway, a B.C. Ministry of Health spokesman referred to Henry’s comments following questions from BIV.

Three million people have downloaded the app so far, while 610 Canadians have used it to report a positive test.

The federal government, which is spending $10 million to promote downloads for the app, isn’t able to delineate in which provinces users live.

Since July it has been deployed in Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Ontario and Saskatchewan.

It’s remains unclear when British Columbians will be able to make use of it.

 

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