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N.L. launches COVID-19 notification app, 2nd province to do so

The COVID Alert app is now live in Newfoundland and Labrador, as the province has become the second in Canada to sign up for the federal government’s exposure notification system.

The provincial government unveiled details of how the free app works Thursday morning. 

The app has been in use in Ontario since the end of July and with minor details, such as customized public health information, operates the same.

When phones that have the app are in contact for more than 15 minutes at a distance closer than two metres, that contact is logged via Bluetooth as a “digital handshake,” a code of random numbers and letters in which no personal information is collected or stored.

When a person tests positive for COVID-19, public health officials give that person another code, called a key, to enter into the app, which then triggers an exposure alert to all phones with which it has logged contact over the last 14 days.

The notification tells users they may have been exposed to COVID-19, and gives them information of how to get tested.

All aspects to the program all voluntary, from downloading the app to entering a positive test code into it. The code itself expires in 24 hours.

Test and trace still crucial

Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, the province’s chief medical officer of health, stressed the app notifies of possible exposure to a case, and does not mean the user was a close contact or will even receive a call from public health as contact tracing happens. But the notification does mean a COVID-19 test is recommended. 

“It’s not going to replace contact tracing and that traditional expertise from public health, but it certainly is another tool that we can use,” said Fitzgerald, the province’s chief medical officer of health, adding contact tracing will continue for every positive case.

Dr. Janice Fitzgerald says downloading and becoming familiar with the app now could help in case future outbreaks occur. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

On Wednesday, Ottawa Public Health said it had seen its first instance where someone tested positive after receiving a COVID Alert app notification.

While as of Wednesday there was only one active case of COVID-19 in Newfoundland and Labrador, with no community transmission reported for months, Fitzgerald said that downloading and getting familiar with the app is still important.

“What we have to remember is that we’re preparing for the future as well, so there may come a time when we’re not in the same situation, the fortunate situation, that we are right now and in that case, this app will be useful,” she said.

It is of particular use if people go to bars or nightclubs where they may be close to others they don’t know, she said.

Downloading barriers

The app has previously come under fire for being inaccessible to seniors and people in lower socio-economic brackets.  COVID Alert works on Apple and Android phones made in the last five years, using relatively new operating systems.

Premier Andrew Furey said Thursday the province is working with community organizations, such as The Gathering Place, Seniors NL and the Office of the Seniors’ Advocate to offer demonstrations and find other ways to get more people on board.

“We are working with them to understand what barriers exist when it comes to using the COVID Alert. We want to work with them to reduce those barriers,” Furey said.

The app is available for later model Apple and Android phones. (Thomas Daigle/CBC)

With large gaps in cell phone service and internet connectivity in rural parts of the province, Furey said the government is also “trying to figure out best ways to eliminate those barriers.”

“The more people who download the app, the better,” he said.

Privacy concerns

In late August, Quebec decided against using the app, citing lack of public support due to privacy concerns as one reason.

Officials Thursday stressed the app does not collect or store personal information, and the codes a positive COVID-19 test generates are stored on a Canadian server. The federal privacy commissioner was also consulted on the app’s development.

Minister of Digital Government Sarah Stoodley says she is satisfied the app avoids any privacy concerns. (N.L. Government livestream)

“Privacy and tech experts that I highly regard have given this app the thumb up, so I personally have a high degree of confidence in it,” said Sarah Stoodley, the minister of digital government.

The provincial government had initially begun talks with Verafin to develop its own app. It curtailed those as the federal government stepped up to create a Canada-wide version, although the province said it has been involved with the national development efforts.

More than 2.2 million people have downloaded the app so far, the bulk in Ontario.

The app is available through Apple and Google’s app stores.

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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