British Columbia

Trudeau urges B.C., Alberta residents to download federal COVID-19 app despite lack of buy-in from provinces

Two western provinces are the last holdouts to begin using the app, which was launched in July and has tracked thousands of positive COVID-19 tests.

PM said federal app can offer some level of protection despite lack of data available in western provinces

The COVID-19 Alert app is pictured on a cellphone in Vancouver, British Columbia on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is urging Canadians who live in Alberta and B.C. to download the federal government's COVID-19 Alert app, despite a lack of buy-in from the health authorities in those provinces.

Two western provinces are the last holdouts to begin using the app, which was launched in July and has tracked thousands of positive COVID-19 tests.

Addressing reporters outside of Rideau Hall on Friday morning, Trudeau said 25 per cent of Canadians with smartphones in provinces where the app is functional have downloaded it.

"We are on our way to making a difference with this app. Every use informs people that they need to be careful and it's an addition to contact tracing ... this will catch people you didn't even know you were in contact with," he said

Users in areas where the app is not in use will see a message that no data is yet available when they open the app. But Trudeau said it can still provide some degree of protection, citing the example of a person in Alberta coming in close contact with someone who tests positive upon return to Saskatchewan.

"It can work even if your health system isn't completely on board. It's free, it absolutely protects your privacy, and it's an extra tool we have at a time where we need to be using all the tools we have to keep ourselves safe," said Trudeau.

"I'm still hopeful the local health systems will put together a system where they can give you that one time code which will allow diagnoses to be plugged into the system to alert people."

Provinces reluctant to sign on

COVID Alert is designed to deliver exposure notifications to all users who were in extended close contact with an infected person over the past 14 days but does not provide the time or location of the potential exposure.

On Wednesday, Alberta's health minister Tyler Shandro defended the province's own COVID-19 tracing app, ABTraceTogether, despite revelations it has tracked just 20 cases since the spring.

B.C.'s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said in October that the federal app was "not at the point where it would be helpful for what we are managing here in B.C."

"There are some parameters that they've built into the federal app that we don't feel work and we believe would cause more concern and frustration as we've seen in some other provinces," she said.

The app has since been updated so that users who test positive for COVID-19 can enter the time their symptoms started, or the date they were tested, allowing those potentially exposed to better estimate the time period they were at risk.

Health Canada said the tweak aligns more closely with public health guidance, as symptomatic individuals are most infectious from two days before their symptoms began. The new features are optional and the additional data will not be shared with the government or anyone else.

New modelling from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) shows the number of COVID-19 cases could reach 60,000 a day by the end of December if Canadians increase their current level of contact with other people.

About the Author

Michelle Ghoussoub

@MichelleGhsoub

Michelle Ghoussoub is a journalist with CBC News in Vancouver. She has previously reported in Lebanon and Chile. Reach her at michelle.ghoussoub@cbc.ca or on Twitter @MichelleGhsoub.

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