Montreal

Quebec abandons opposition to federal COVID app as province is swamped with new cases

Quebec will start using the federal government's COVID-19 exposure alert app in the coming days, the provincial government said Tuesday, reversing its earlier opposition to the technology in an effort to slow a rapid increase in infections.

Decision comes as province tries to contain the spread of the virus among youths

The COVID Alert app is seen on an iPhone. The app tracks the locations of phones relative to other phones, and notifies users if they have been in proximity to another app user who has tested positive for COVID-19. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Quebec will start using the federal government's COVID-19 exposure alert app in the coming days, the provincial government said Tuesday, reversing its earlier opposition to the technology in an effort to slow a rapid increase in infections.

The ongoing wave of infections has already prompted the Quebec government to shut bars, restaurant dining rooms and theatres for most of October in the densest areas of the province. Social gatherings at home have also been banned.

Nearly half of the new cases in the province are coming from Quebecers under the age of 30, according to public health officials.

But officials also say they have had difficulty tracing those who have been in contact with a positive case, hampering efforts to isolate potentially contagious individuals.

On Tuesday, Health Minister Christian Dubé said he was in the process of finalizing details about adopting the federal app, COVID Alert, which informs users when they have had prolonged contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

Health Minister Christian Dubé, right, said he was in the process of finalizing details about adopting the federal app. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

"We're in the final stages of technical preparations to be able to connect with the federal app," he said at a news conference in Quebec City. 

There are currently four provinces using the app: Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick. Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island are likely to follow suit soon.

COVID Alert has been downloaded by around 3 million people in Canada, making it one of the most popular apps in the country. 

Quebec drops opposition to federal app

But the idea of using a mobile phone app to help with contact tracing had faced significant opposition from Quebec politicians as recently as last month.

An all-party legislative committee concluded in August that the benefits of the technology were limited, and did not outweigh privacy concerns.

Premier François Legault endorsed those findings and said the province wouldn't sign on to COVID Alert. He added that if the province were going to use an app, he would prefer it to have been developed in Quebec.

Since then, Ottawa had been nudging Quebec to reconsider. Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu published an open letter last week in Montreal's La Presse newspaper, arguing the app would help Quebec slow the spread of COVID-19.

With cases now rising exponentially, and public health officials worried about whether the health-care system can withstand the surge, Quebec decided it couldn't wait for a local solution to emerge.

As cases rose in Quebec, Ottawa nudged the province to reconsider its opposition to the app. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

"When we took all the factors into consideration — including the development time it would have taken for a Quebec firm to be ready — we took the right decision to go with the app that is already ready," Dubé said.

Critical threshold

The health minister, though, also acknowledged the government will need to convince enough Quebecers to use the app for it to be effective.

It is not only a matter of downloading the app, Dubé said. Users have to be willing to input a unique code if they test positive for the disease. That unique code triggers the alert system.

WATCH | Legault begs Quebec's young people to follow public health guidelines: 

Quebec premier pleads with young adults, begging them to help stop the spread of COVID-19

Montreal

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Quebec Premier François Legault says young people may not get hit hard by the virus, but they can have lasting health problems and transmit the disease to seniors. 1:11

"It will take the participation of a high percentage to make sure that it makes a difference," he said.

Before the app becomes operational in Quebec, Dubé wants to meet with the opposition parties and secure their support for the move.

There remains some convincing to do on that front.

The Liberal spokesperson on the file, Marwah Rizqy, said she was concerned the province's testing capacity won't be able to meet the heightened demand generated by the app.

"It's a good thing the app tells you might want to get tested," Rizqy said. "But if you're going to wait hours and hours, and then wait 10 days for the result, then it won't help us."

About the Author

Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal.

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