Provincial public health workers have given only a tiny fraction of the Manitobans who tested positive for COVID-19 in October the means to notify their contacts through the COVID Alert app.
The province says public health workers gave 31 COVID-positive users of the contact tracing app the ability to notify their contacts during the first three weeks the app was activated in Manitoba.
During the same period, 1,744 Manitobans tested positive for the disease.
More than 4.7 million Canadians have downloaded COVID Alert onto their mobile phones, but the province does not know how many Manitobans use the app, which allows people who test positive for COVID-19 to anonymously notify other users of the app who came physically close to them.
Between Oct. 1, when the app went online, and Oct. 22, 31 keys were given to COVID-positive patients, Manitoba Public Health said in a statement.
Those keys allow users to notify their contacts.
“They get the key from public health officials when they are called to notify them of a positive test result and begin the contact tracing process,” Public Health said in a statement.
Users of the app must request the code, a spokesperson for the province said.
“We encourage Manitobans to request the one-time key at the time of receiving their positive test result,” she said.
“The federal government has initiated a public education and awareness campaign to encourage Canadians to request a key, so we hope to see more a greater uptake on key requests in the weeks ahead.”
‘We need to be more proactive’
Placing the onus on patients may not be best way to use the app, said Dan Chateau, an assistant professor in community health sciences at the University of Manitoba.
“When somebody finds out that they’ve tested positive for COVID, asking for a code may not be the first thing on their mind, particularly if they’re ill at the time,” Chateau said in an interview. “I do think it’s something where we need to be more proactive.”
Chateau said there are many reasons use of the app is low. Seniors in personal care homes and young children, for example, are unlikely to use a mobile phone and download the contact-tracing app.
“And then you’ve probably got another group of people that may not have gotten around to downloading the app,” he said, “so there’s two reasons for low numbers, one of which is expected and not a problem.”
Nonetheless, Chateau suggested the app would work better if the code was offered, potentially giving Manitoba another means of slowing the spread of COVID-19.
“Get the app and it’ll make everybody’s job a little bit easier and in terms of contact tracing, probably increase the likelihood that we can get these numbers back down then, especially if they offer the code,” he said.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew said he’s been told of cases where patients could not obtain the code when they requested it.
“They were told by the person on the other side that they didn’t know what that was,” Kinew said.
“The government needs to make sure that the people who are on Health Links — the people who the general public is reaching out to — the people who are contacting those who’ve received a positive test result, that they know what the COVID Alert key is, that they share it proactively and they encourage people to use the app.”
A spokesperson for Health Minister Cameron Friesen said public health workers were supposed to offer a key to positive patients on the first day the app was activated.
He said he was given the impression every COVID-positive app user was given a code.