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When it comes to coronavirus contact tracing, Ottawa looking to endorse 1 app nationwide

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he’s hoping Canada will adopt just one contact tracing app to encourage use across the country in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“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,” he told reporters Friday morning during his daily briefing outside Rideau Cottage.

Contact tracing — the practice of tracking people who may have come in contact with an infected person in order to get them tested and isolated — is widely viewed as vital to the country’s pandemic recovery.

While most provinces are performing that work with volunteers, there have been ongoing conversations and negotiations with multiple technology companies for weeks about smartphone app development to bolster the effort.

Alberta is already out with its own app, called ABTraceTogether, stirring up concerns that a patchwork of apps across the country could lead to low uptake numbers and inconsistent data.

Trudeau said the federal government will have more to say about a contact tracing app “in the coming days or weeks.”

“In order for people to move around freely, and start getting back to normal life, we have to improve our ability to quickly pinpoint the virus and isolate it,” he said.

In a rare collaboration, Apple and Google released their long-awaited smartphone technology Wednesday that notifies people automatically if they might have been exposed to the coronavirus. It uses Bluetooth wireless technology to detect when someone who downloaded the app has spent time near another app user who later tests positive for the virus.

The tech giants are providing the software, but public health agencies around the world will have to develop their own contact tracing apps. In an attempt to promote use and avoid a patchwork of apps, Apple and Google are restricting use of their technology to one app per country — leaving some room for exceptions.

Trudeau said the federal government has been in talks with Apple and Google.

Whatever app the federal government decides to recommend will likely receive scrutiny from privacy experts who have already raised concerns about how much data these emerging technologies collect and how it’s stored. 

Federal government offering volunteers

Trudeau is also urging the provinces to lean on the federal government’s resources to help trace cases of COVID-19 and slow infections.

“While provinces and territories are managing testing and contact tracing differently, our government has trained federal employees who can make 3,600 contact tracing calls a day, seven days a week,” he said.

A public health nurse in Salt Lake County, Utah, points to a board showing a hypothetical case that serves as a training tool to teach new contact tracers how to track all the people they need to reach out to after a person tests positive for the novel coronavirus. (Rick Bowmer/The Associated Press)

Statistics Canada also has an additional 1,700 interviewers who can make up to 20,000 calls a day, the prime minister said.

“These federal resources are available to assist provinces and territories with any surges or backlogs or challenges in contact tracing,” he said.

In Quebec, which remains the hardest hit province in the country with 720 new coronavirus cases and 82 deaths reported Thursday alone, the latest public health data provides no clear information on why the virus continues to spread even after months of lockdown. 

Next door in Ontario, where the number of new daily coronavirus cases continues to inch upwards, testing has fallen far below targets and the source of infection for new cases remains a mystery.

Trudeau said Ontario has already taken Ottawa up on its offer to do some of the manual calls.

“We’re already helping to make calls in Ontario and stand ready to help anywhere else,” he said.

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