Ottawa

OPH to develop digital contact tracing app

Ottawa Public Health is looking to develop a mobile application that would make it easier to track the movements of people with COVID-19, and notify those who may have come into close contact with them.

Mobile application would help track, notify those who may have been exposed to coronavirus

Digital contact tracing is an infection control strategy that has been used with great effectiveness in other countries. (Steven Senne/Associated Press)

Ottawa Public Health (OPH) is looking to develop a mobile application that would make it easier to track the movements of people with COVID-19, and notify those who may have come into close contact with them.

Ottawa's Board of Health passed a motion at its meeting on Monday allowing OPH to look into the use of technology to support contact tracing — the crucial infection control strategy of tracking people who may have been exposed to the coronavirus.

"As the number of COVID cases continues to increase, so does the possibility of community spread," said Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health. "We need to look at automating some of the aspects of this process so we can reduce the time to trace the contacts and therefore optimize our efforts to contain the spread of the virus."

When someone tests positive for COVID-19, contact tracers interview the infected person to determine who they may have come into close contact with during the period when they were contagious. The tracers then contact those people to warn them to monitor for symptoms, or to self-isolate. 

It's a laborious process that is becoming more intense as the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Ottawa inches closer to 1,000. But Etches said the time to act is now.

"During the time that it takes to identify and then reach out to close contacts, people may be unknowingly exposing others to the virus," she said.

OPH to work with 3rd-party developer

Etches said OPH wants to work with a third-party developer to customize an existing application to perform digital contact tracing, thus speeding up the process and taking some of the burden off contact tracers.

The application could be downloaded by any resident. If they test positive, they can opt to allow OPH to access their historical location data. 

That would allow OPH to track where the person has visited and identify and alert people the infected person may have come in contact with. The app could also provide close contacts with information on what measures they should take to prevent further spread of the virus.

Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health, says Ottawa Public Health will follow all of Canada's privacy rules in developing the application. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

Use of the application would be strictly voluntary, and there would be safeguards in place to ensure the protection of personal privacy, Etches said.

OPH staff said they have already identified a developer with an application that could work. With modifications, staff said it could be mere days before it's up and running.

OPH would not identify the name of the developer or the application under consideration.

While other Canadian jurisdictions are looking into incorporating technology into contact tracing, Etches said she is not aware of any that have moved forward with an app like this.

Digital contact tracing successful in Asia

Several East Asian countries have used similar technology to assist with infection control.

In Singapore, the government encourages citizens to download the app TraceTogether, which uses Bluetooth to identify other nearby phones which also have the app installed. The data from these exchanges help the country's health ministry when doing contact tracing.

South Korea and Taiwan both use location tracking data to enforce 14-day quarantine measures for people who have arrived from overseas.

All three of those countries have seen lower case loads relative to Canada, despite their proximity and close links with China, the original epicentre of the pandemic.

Apple and Google announced a joint plan earlier this month to use Bluetooth wireless technology to track down people who may have been infected by coronavirus carriers.

About the Author

Ryan has chased stories for CBC News across the country in Toronto, Vancouver, Yellowknife and Ottawa, filing for web, radio and TV. You can reach him by email at ryan.jones@cbc.ca or on Twitter at @helloryanjones.

With files from Natalia Goodwin

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