Any contact tracing app for Ontario needs to 'work with the rest of the country': health minister

Any contact tracing app for Ontario needs to ‘work with the rest of the country’: health minister

The provincial government is "actively looking for the right app" to help people figure out if they've been in contact with someone with COVID-19, Health Minister Christine Elliott said on Friday.

And while provincial officials have previously indicated that such technology is on their radar, both Elliott and Premier Doug Ford stressed the importance of using a system that works with others across the country.

"We are actively looking for the right app for Ontario right now for management of COVID-19 to indicate to people that if they’ve been in contact with someone with COVID that gives them the ability to then follow up with their own health provider," Elliott said at Queen's Park. "We are doing active contact tracing right now, manually, but there are other technological aids of course that we can use and we are looking for the right app, but one of course that is going to work with the rest of the country."

Their comments came a few hours after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he hopes to be able to recommend a single contact tracing application that can be used by all Canadians.

As provinces start to reopen their economies, testing and contact tracing — the process of tracking down the contacts of those infected with the coronavirus — have become a focus, with officials and health experts alike noting the importance of having strong structures in place to do both of these things.

Trudeau stressed on Friday morning that in order for the reopening of the economy to be successful, increased testing and the ability to quickly detect and isolate COVID-19 cases are key. But he also noted that it's important for contact tracing data gathered by each of the provinces to be shared across jurisdictions in order to monitor the spread of the virus.

Ford shared the prime minister's message, saying "it's so important to have the proper app." He said he spoke with the prime minister and the other premiers about this issue.

"Another thing that’s really important is when we fully reopen the economy and people are flying from let's say Vancouver to Toronto or Calgary or out east to Halifax, those apps have to be able to talk to each other," said Ford. "It seems like every province has their special homemade app that they really enjoy using, but it’s so critical that we communicate to each other."

He said the provinces and the federal government have agreed to put together a table of technology experts to work on this.

"We had a good conversation with the prime minister and the premiers yesterday, we put together a committee to make sure that we work through this and have an app that can communicate to each other," Ford said.

"It is really important that we continue to do the tracing and the testing and we have to look not just at Ontario, but the entire country because people will move around more as the economy opens up so we want to make sure that we can have the capacity to work together," said Elliott. "The systems all have to work together so that we can react as a country."

Ford noted that there are some challenges with contact tracing apps. He pointed to places using such technology, like Alberta and Singapore, that haven't been able to get a majority of their population to use the apps. Alberta introduced an app at the beginning of May called ABTraceTogether.

"It’s just getting people on board to utilize it," said Ford, adding that he spoke with Alberta's premier and that less than 15 per cent of the population is using the app.

The app introduced in Alberta had some glitches including that it would only work when the screen was unlocked, for example. But an Apple update is expected to fix that issue.

Another issue is privacy, noted Ford.

"Privacy is very very important and any app that doesn’t have it, then that’s going be difficult," he said. "People believe in privacy, I believe in privacy, so we have to have the right app."

Trudeau also noted concerns with apps that are being used around the world.

"One of the challenges that those apps have encountered is that it has to sit in the foreground of your phone and drains your battery, that’s why the fix that Apple and Google are talking about bringing in in the beginning of June will be extremely important as a base for an effective contact tracing or exposure notification app," Trudeau said. "We are working with a number of different partners of potential apps, we’re working closely with Apple and Google on the update that they will be bringing forward and it is our expectation that when the time comes for that to be released, we will be able to recommend strongly to Canadians a particular app that will help us manage the spread of COVID-19."

In the meantime, Trudeau said the government has trained federal employees who can make up to 3,600 contact tracing calls a day and that Statistics Canada has another 1,700 interviewers ready who can make up to 20,000 calls a day. These people, he said, are available to help out provinces.

Ford said Ontario has more than 2,000 contact tracers trying to identify those who have come into contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case and that the federal government has supplied the province with more than 200 people to help with this.

"All the help is appreciated, but we’ll take as much as we can get right now because it’s absolutely critical and we’re going to continue focusing on tracing and tracking these cases," said Ford.

Elliott said hundreds of people including medical students have come forward to help public health with this effort.

Toronto Public Health and the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario announced a partnership on Friday whereby more registered nurses will be hired to support contact tracing efforts. The association said 120 registered nurses would start at the public health unit next week.

Toronto Public Health noted contact tracing as a "critical component of the COVID-19 response that helps us to understand how COVID-19 is circulating and what we can to do to protect our community."

"Through this work people who are identified as COVID-19 positive and their close contacts are quickly isolated for 14 days to prevent further virus spread," the public health unit stated.

In its framework for reopening the economy, the province outlined a goal of public health units reaching 90 per cent of new COVID-19 contacts within one day so that they can guide people on what to do and ultimately limit community spread.

Elliott said the province surpassed that goal and is reaching "over 92 per cent of the people" within 24 hours.

"Is there room to do better? Absolutely," she said.

Photo Credit: Rick Madonik/Toronto Star

Sneh Duggal

Reporter, Queen's Park Briefing

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