WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) – The Canadian province of Alberta on Friday launched the country's first telephone application to track contacts of people infected with the coronavirus, while the country slowly restarts its economy.
Increased testing and contact tracking are essential parts of plans to reopen economies that have largely closed to slow the spread of the pandemic, with no vaccines or proven treatments available.
Currently, contact tracking is done manually, asking infected patients to remember who they interacted with.
Alberta's voluntary app, called ABTraceTogether, uses Bluetooth wireless technology to identify phones, which also have the app installed, that have contacted a 2-meter person with an infected person for at least 15 minutes over a 24-hour period.
After a person with the app is infected, Alberta Health Services will ask the person to upload encrypted data that will allow tracking workers to reach others who have been in close contact.
No geographic location data is collected and data about meetings is stored encrypted on the phones.
"The sooner Alberta Health Services contact trackers can inform exposed people who were close contacts, the faster we will be able to prevent possible outbreaks," said Alberta Chief Medical Officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw.
Alberta became the latest province this week to announce a phased plan to reopen services and businesses.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Wednesday that it would be important to ensure that data privacy and security are balanced with the need for more information about the spread of the virus. He said there are several proposals under development that could apply to Canada.
Britain's privacy advocates have urged the government to prevent an application that will be launched soon from becoming a form of state surveillance.
Alberta has the third highest case count in Canada – 10% of the national total – and one of Canada's most aggressive testing programs. Many of his cases are due to outbreaks in refrigerators and nursing homes.
Ontario, the most populous province, is looking for options for applications, provincial Health Minister Christine Elliot told reporters.
Canada's death toll rose less than 5% on Friday to 3,223 deaths, while cases rose to nearly 54,000 as daily numbers continue to decline.
The province of Quebec, the country's epicenter of viruses, said it began to increase testing before the plan to start reopening businesses and schools this month. The tests will prioritize hospitalized patients with symptoms, healthcare professionals, nursing staff and residents, said Quebec public health director Horacio Arruda.
"The more we test, the more we find," he told reporters.
Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Steve Scherer in Ottawa and Allison Lampert in Montreal; Editing by Leslie Adler and Cynthia Osterman