COVID Alert app now active in Manitoba
Manitoba is 5th province to activate app that notifies users exposed to another user with COVID-19
Canada's COVID-19 exposure notification app, COVID Alert, is now active in Manitoba.
The province became the fifth in the country to enable the app on Thursday. The app uses Bluetooth to notify users if they've been in contact with another user who has tested positive for COVID-19.
"It's all systems go," Health Minister Cameron Friesen said at a news briefing Thursday.
The app officially launched in Ontario in July. Since then, Newfoundland and Labrador, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick have also signed on.
The free, voluntary app works by exchanging random codes between smartphones via Bluetooth every five minutes.
The technology estimates how close users are based on the strength of the signals it receives. If a pair of users are assessed to be closer than two metres for more than 15 minutes, the app records it as an exposure, the federal government's website says.
A user who tests positive can enter a one-time key from their health authority, which instructs the app to notify other users who were exposed to that person.
The app doesn't use GPS to track users' locations, and it won't access users' names, addresses, phone contacts or health information, it says.
Its launch comes as Manitoba records a rising number of COVID-19 cases, especially in Winnipeg. As of Thursday morning, Manitoba had 621 known active cases of COVID-19, including 534 in its capital city.
The app is intended to be an additional tool to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, but won't take the place of contact tracing, Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief public health officer, said Thursday.
"This isn't going to replace or even reduce Public Health's contact tracing requirements," Roussin said.
"This will allow contacts of cases that may not have been aware that they'd been in close contact with [a case], that Public Health may not have been able to reach, to be aware that they've been in contact with an infectious person."
Once someone gets a notification, Roussin said, they'll be advised to get tested and self-isolate pending the results.
More than 3M downloads
More than three million Canadians have downloaded the app since it launched in July, the federal government said in a news release Thursday.
More than 500 people who tested positive for COVID-19 have entered that information into the app, to inform other users of possible exposures.
Friesen urged Manitobans to sign up for the app, and said it needs large-scale public buy-in if it's going to be effective.
"We've been told by some groups that an app such as the COVID Alert app really only becomes useful, demographically, when a minimum of 60 per cent of people have downloaded the app," he said.
"I've heard numbers as high as 70 and 80 per cent. This is a challenge."
For Manitobans who are skeptical, Friesen advised them to download the app and, before turning it on, read through the disclosures about how it works and the ways it protects privacy.
"This is not a GPS locator beacon. This does not allow the government to store information. Nothing in your device can be gleaned or loaded from this," he said. "This simply works on a device-to-device basis that is designed to not signal the government of a contact, but signal the user."
The province will be able to track how many Manitobans download the app, but Public Health won't get notified when users get messages they've been exposed.
"No one, including Public Health, gets notified of that. Only the individual gets notified of that.," Roussin said. "Public Health won't have the ability to follow up with these contacts. We're not informed of it. It's only to that particular person's phone, and so very confidential."
Canadians can download COVID Alert for free from the App Store or the Google Play Store, but only people living in provinces that have activated the technology can actually use it.