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Trudeau says ‘COVID Alert’ national contact tracing app to be made available July 1 in Canada

Thursday, June 18, 2020 @ 2:49 PM | By Cristin Schmitz

Last Updated: Thursday, June 18, 2020 @ 4:54 PM

Ottawa and Ontario plan to roll out for testing in that province July 1 a “completely voluntary, anonymous and secure” mobile contact tracing application for COVID-19 that will also be offered to everyone across the country — although buy-in from the other provinces and territories must still be obtained to make the app fully operational nationally, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says.

Dubbed “COVID Alert,” the app developed in co-operation with Shopify, BlackBerry and the province of Ontario was enthusiastically announced by the prime minister, who called it “super-simple”, “super-secure” and “completely voluntary” during his daily COVID-19 update in Ottawa June 18.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

According to a federal government backgrounder, if someone tests positive for COVID-19, a health-care provider will give them a unique temporary code, so they can upload their status anonymously to a national network. Other users who have downloaded the app and who have come in contact with that person will be notified, through the app, that they may have been exposed to the virus. The app will also provide users with information on steps they can take to keep themselves and others safe while the app creators are working with the provinces and territories so they can customize public health information based on particular jurisdictions

“This is an approach that we are confident is going to make a big difference,” Trudeau said. “Over the past months we’ve seen a number of applications put forward by various jurisdictions around the world that … really didn’t work all that well. Some of the challenges were that these applications needed to sit in the foreground of your phone and therefore drained batteries, and you had to work to keep them active quite regularly. In the past weeks, Apple and Google put out major upgrades to their operating systems that allow this application to work in the background so that you don’t have to do anything around this application other than download it.”

Trudeau explained that the anonymized codes associated with various phones would be securely held by the Canadian Digital Service in Canada and no personal information would be stored, i.e. nothing that could identify the person.      

“The privacy commissioner has been worked with on this app,” he noted. “It is extremely important that we make sure that Canadians’ privacy is protected — not just for their sake but because we know that uptake of this app won’t be there if people are worried for their privacy. That’s why it functions entirely on an anonymized basis. There are no identifiers of your phone, of your [cell] number, of your identity, of your address, or even of your location, that is any part of this app,” he stressed. “A random code associated with your phone will be held in a secured national database that will consulted by the apps across the country to see whether that randomized code has tested positive for COVID or not. If it has tested positive, your phone will tell you ‘Oh, you’ve been in proximity with someone who has subsequently tested positive for COVID so you should probably call your local health authority,” he said. “It’s super simple. It’s super secure and we’ve worked very, very carefully to ensure that it is that way.”

As of July 1, the app will be available to everyone, Trudeau said. The national anonymized secure database will also be there to be consulted by the app across the country.

However integration with the local public health services in each province and territory awaits agreement from those governments (apart from Ontario which has already agreed), said Trudeau, who was scheduled June 18 for his weekly virtual meeting with the premiers. “Obviously it will work better once all provinces and territories are part of it,” he said.

Trudeau said there are more than 30 million smart phones in Canada. If half of the phone users download the app it would be “extraordinarily useful,” including to track and address COVID-19 spikes and hotspots, he said. Even if fewer people participate, it will still be helpful, he said. “It has so many benefits for the individual and for society … without any downside because it’s anonymous, there are no location services or geographic services used. It’s completely within the control of the user and it’s completely secure so we are expecting a lot of Canadians to want to do their part very simply.”

The government said the Canadian Digital Service is leading the development of the app, in collaboration with the Ontario Digital Service and building on technology developed by Shopify volunteers. The app will undergo a security review by BlackBerry. The app incorporates Bluetooth technology provided by Apple and Google to anonymously record instances where users have come into close contact. To protect confidentiality and privacy, the app will not disclose the identity of users. This information will never be shared with any other entity, will not be stored by the app, and will never leave the user’s phone, said the government.

The app will be available to Canadians for free download “in the coming weeks,” with health authorities in Ontario being the first to distribute the unique, temporary codes to people who test positive for COVID-19. The federal government said it anticipates the other provinces and territories will join in in the coming weeks and months.

The app will be available from the Apple App Store and Google Play. The technology will be owned and operated by the government of Canada, and published under an open source licence.

Ottawa said the app will undergo a “thorough privacy assessment, and all data provided to the app will be securely stored and protected. The federal government will not store personal health information.”

It added it is “engaging with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner to ensure that the app complies with federal privacy requirements in its design and deployment.”

The government said it will also establish an external advisory council that includes regional representation, to provide guidance during the rollout of the app “with a view to ensuring it operates in a transparent way and in the public interest.”

In a June 18 news conference following the prime minister’s, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said his government is strengthening and standardizing case and contact management by:
  • Ensuring that all new cases and their close contacts are identified early, contacted quickly, investigated thoroughly and are followed up with daily for up to 14 days;
  • Supporting public health units with up to 1,700 additional federal staff from Statistics Canada;
  • Improving technology tools by modernizing the integrated Public Health Information System through the implementation of a new custom-built COVID-19 case and contact management system; and
  • Launching “a privacy-first exposure notification app” to alert Ontarians when they may have been exposed to COVID-19.

“As we take our contact tracing strategy to the next level today, I want to thank the federal government for providing more boots on the ground and supporting a privacy-first app that will protect both Ontarians and Canadians alike,” Ford said in a prepared statement.

“Along with the early detection of new cases through the ongoing implementation of our enhanced testing strategy, more effective and efficient case and contact management will ensure that we are able to stop the spread of COVID-19 as we gradually reopen the province,” added Health Minister Christine Elliott. “To support these efforts, we are dramatically expanding staffing levels and getting on with the long-overdue work of replacing outdated systems that no longer meet the needs of public health units.”

The province said it is providing updated case- and contact-management guidance for all public health units to ensure consistency across the province. Public health units will:
  • Connect with cases, and with all individuals who have had close contact with a positive case, within 24 hours of being identified;
  • Direct all close contacts to self-isolate for up to 14 days;
  • Follow up with close contacts every day for the duration of their self-isolation; and
  • Advise testing of all appropriate close contacts.

The Ford government said that it is augmenting the current provincial capacity of about 2,000 case managers and contact tracers, with additional contact tracing staff, provided through Statistics Canada which has access to up to 1,700 additional staff, available to all provinces, for contact tracing. Over the summer and into fall, Ontario will continue to build a supplementary pool of contact tracers from the Ontario public service and the broader public sector “for additional surge capacity, as required,” the government said.

The province also said it is implementing a new user-friendly case and contact management system that will integrate with COVID-19 laboratory results from the Ontario Laboratory Information System data, making current processes significantly more efficient and reducing the administrative burden for public health unit staff. “A single central system will enable the province to identify provincewide regional trends and hotspots, while protecting personal health information,” a government press release states. “Custom-built on the Salesforce platform, the new system will also allow for a remote workforce, enabling contact tracing to be quickly ramped up when required.”

The government said about 97 per cent of new COVID-19 cases in Ontario are currently being reached within one day by local public health officials, who provide guidance and direction to contain community spread.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the name of the contact tracing app.

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