Manitoba wants national approach to contact tracing apps

Manitoba's premier says he wants to see a national program to track COVID-19, using contact tracing technology to follow its spread in provinces and across the country.

Province is looking at 'a number of apps,' chief public health officer says, but rollout 'still a ways away'

Manitoba has already looked at a number of contact tracing apps, said Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer, but hopes to see national co-ordination on the technology. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)

Manitoba's premier says he wants to see a national program to track COVID-19, using contact tracing technology to follow its spread in provinces and across the country.

Brian Pallister said Wednesday he and other premiers are advocating for improved COVID-19 tracking, and his government is continuing to look at how to do that, he said.

"We're looking at technology. There are some hiccups we want to work out before we can introduce it," Pallister said.

"But we do think this could be part of a national tracking program."

The premier made the comments during a news conference to unveil the second phase of the province's multi-staged plan to reopen the economy. Phase 2 of the plan, which begins on June 1, will include the reopening of gyms, pools and restaurant dining rooms, with some restrictions in place.

"As we move forward, [Manitobans will] be able to do more travel," but that will hopefully come "with some additional strength in tracking systems," he said.

"That's where the federal partnership will be very important, and the co-ordination among, obviously, all our provinces will be vital."

Alongside testing, aggressive contact tracing is a cornerstone of Manitoba and Canadian plans to lift social restrictions put in place to fight the pandemic. The practice involves figuring out who a sick person has been in contact with, so those people can be isolated, too.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last week he's hoping Canada will adopt a single contact tracing app to encourage use across the country.

"In order for people to move around freely and start getting back to normal life, we have to improve our ability to quickly pinpoint the virus and isolate it," Trudeau said Friday, promising more information from the federal government in the coming days or weeks.

On Wednesday, Pallister said contact tracing technology — like many pandemic responses from government — is a balancing act between personal freedoms and public safety.

"The fact of the matter is our interpersonal opportunities are limited and lessened," he said. "But in that limitation, we're saving lives."

Hope for 'national buy-in'

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief public health officer, said Wednesday the province has already looked at a number of contact tracing apps.

"Definitely we'd be quite interested in having a national buy-in for this," Roussin said. "I think that would put us in a better position than if provinces had separate type of apps that couldn't communicate with each other."

Versions of the apps are in place in jurisdictions around the world, including one in Alberta called ABTraceTogether. Four days after its May 1 launch, Alberta officials reported more than 103,000 people had downloaded that app.

Trudeau said Friday the federal government has been in talks with Apple and Google. The tech giants released smartphone technology last week that uses Bluetooth wireless technology to detect whether a user has spent time near another user who later tested positive.

Roussin said most of the models Manitoba has looked at typically use Bluetooth, and are designed to detect close, prolonged contact with other users.

When someone tests positive for COVID-19, public health workers can enter a code into that person's phone that automatically sends anonymous information to close contacts.

"It can't locate people, so it doesn't tell anyone where they are, or who specifically they've been with," Roussin said, adding any app rolled out in Mantioba would include privacy safeguards.

"We think that there's a number of apps out there that would meet our privacy requirements, and that Manitobans would be accepting of," he said. "But we're still a ways away … before we have something to implement here."

Contact tracing technology would be an aid to, not a replacement for, traditional contact tracing, Roussin said.

Manitoba has already scaled up its usual public health team of six contact tracers to as many as 50 on a given day, the province said in April.


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