LHSC asks employees to turn off Health Canada's COVID-19 alert app while at work

Even as the number of patients and staff testing positive for COVID-19 at the region's largest hospital increases, London Health Sciences Centre is asking employees to turn off Health Canada's coronavirus alert app. 

A hospital spokesperson says it's to avoid contact tracing confusion

The London Health Sciences Centre's Victoria Hospital and Children's Hospital in London, Ont. (Dave Chidley/CBC)

Even as the number of patients and staff testing positive for COVID-19 at the region's largest hospital jumps to a level not seen since the summer, London Health Sciences Centre has asked its employees to turn off Health Canada's coronavirus alert app. 

The LHSC is the region's largest employer and almost 15,000 people work there. 

As of Monday, eight patients are in the hospital with COVID-19 and 14 staff members have tested positive. It's the highest count of positive cases at the hospital since June. 

Last week, the hospital told all of its staff and physicians to disable the Health Canada COVID-19 notification app while at the hospital. It had previously made a similar request in the summer, an official said. 

The app lets others know of possible exposures before symptoms appear, possibly leading to earlier testing and a stop to the spread of the infection. 

"This federally sponsored application is designed as a tool that prompts an individual to go for testing based on a proximity tag, flagging a potential exposure to a COVID-19 case," the hospital told staff and physicians in an email. 

The more Canadians who install the COVID Alert app on their phones, the better we can limit the spread of COVID-19.- Health Canada

"This is an important initiative within the general population, however, the app does not take into consideration the policies, procedures, and personal protective equipment in place at LHSC to prevent exposure to COVID-19. We are encouraging anyone using this app to make sure it is disabled while you are at work." 

That goes against the advice of Health Canada and Ontario's minister responsible for digital government, which recommend that all Canadians download and use the app. Ontario calls it a "key tool" in fighting the spread of the virus. 

"The free app is another tool Canadians can use to help limit the spread of infection and prevent future outbreaks as we ease restrictions and restart the economy. The more Canadians who install the COVID Alert app on their phones, the better we can limit the spread of COVID-19," Health Canada told CBC News in a statement.

The federal COVID Alert App, notifies users if they've been in the proximity of other users who have reported testing positive for COVID-19. (Morgan Modjeski/CBC )

"COVID Alert is just one part of the public health effort to limit the spread of COVID-19. You still need to follow all public health guidelines in your area. The app should be used for the duration of the COVID-19 outbreak. It does not replace manual contact tracing by local public health authorities." 

Ontario calls the app "an effective tool in supporting early detection, testing, and self-isolation, helping to keep Ontarians safe," and notes it has notified tens of thousands of Ontarians about potential exposure to COVID-19. 

"We encourage all Ontarians to do their part to protect themselves and those around them by downloading and using the COVID Alert app," said Sebastian Skamski, a spokesperson for the Ontario minister responsible for digital government and data transformation. 

Hospital has own contact tracing

Staff were told to disable the app while at work to avoid possible confusion regarding getting tested, said hospital spokesperson Marek Kubow in an email to CBC News. 

LHSC employees are told to contact Occupational Health and Safety Services if they do get an alert from the app, to determine whether testing is required. 

"Staff and physicians within our facilities are masked and, in clinical areas, are required to wear eye protection, therefore an in-facility exposure would be different than a community exposure due to different levels of PPE," Kubow wrote. 

"Once an exposure is identified they are also contacted directly as part of the contact tracing program. We are limiting some possible confusion that could arise between the two notification processes." 

The London Health Sciences Centre does its own contact tracing for people exposed while at the hospital. 

Asked if the hospital is worried that staff would forget to turn on the app after they're done work, therefore further limiting the number of people who are getting alerts about positive cases in the community, Kubow said he didn't know, and that it was up to individuals if they want to use the app. 

Ontario says the app works with the contact tracing that public health units — or, presumably, hospitals — do. 

"While public health units focus on tracing Ontarians' known contacts, the app focuses on alerting Ontarians' unknown contacts — such as the person beside you on the bus or behind you at the supermarket — without sharing personal information," Skamski said said. 

"This exposure notification app is a key strategy in Ontario's case and contact management strategy and is yet another way the government of Ontario is leveraging technology and innovation to bolster our fight against the COVID-19 pandemic."