The success of Manitoba’s adoption of a COVID-19 exposure alert app may hinge on how the province gets the word out, and whether local restaurants and bars get on board with a “no app, no entry” rule, says an Ontario expert.
The Health Canada COVID Alert app officially launched during the summer in Ontario, followed by Newfoundland and Labrador, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick. Manitoba will join the effort this week, and Health Minister Cameron Friesen urged the public to download the app now.
But epidemiologist Dr. Prabhat Jha said he hopes Manitoba draws lessons from those other regions, including what not to do.
“What not to do is simply release the app and say, ‘Hey, use it,'” said Jha, director for the Centre for Global Health Research at St. Michael’s Hospital and a professor of epidemiology in the faculty of medicine at the University of Toronto.
What’s needed, said Jha, is a professional social media campaign that targets younger people and makes a compelling case for the value of the app, its confidentiality and the privacy of data.
Another possible initiative is to institute some kind of “no app, no entry” rule at bars and restaurants in conjunction with business owners, said Jha.
“That would have the benefit of increasing the incentive for people to actually use the app.”
The app uses Bluetooth technology to detect app users who come into contact with each other. Users who test positive get a one-time code they can enter. When they do, any app user they’ve been within two metres of for at least 15 minutes in the two weeks prior is notified with an alert.
Though anyone can download the app, only people in provinces that have agreed to participate can report a diagnosis.
On Monday, Minister Friesen said the province would release more details about the app later this week, and encouraged Manitobans to download it in advance.
He said if the provincial government needs to switch up its messaging to reach younger populations, who appear to be driving a recent surge in Winnipeg, then it will.
A provincial spokesperson said Tuesday the government is finalizing plans but intends to promote the app in a number of ways.
However, implementing a “no app, no entry” recommendation would be a challenge, the spokesperson said.
“Any sort of restrictions on access to a site without the app would require significant review, including issues around accessibility of the app on certain phones, the privacy of individuals and access to technology (among others) before anything would be considered,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.
‘Extremely happy’ app coming
Either way, the endorsement by the Manitoba government of the COVID-19 alert app is welcome news, said Jason Kindrachuk.
“I’m extremely happy that Manitoba has signed off on this,” said Kindrachuk, an associate professor and Canada research chair in emerging viruses at the University of Manitoba. “We need to use whatever technology we can to try and get past this virus.”
Friesen and Kindrachuk both said the app doesn’t collect personal information. Health Canada says the app doesn’t track users’ location, name, address, health information or personal contacts in their phone.
That also means it won’t necessarily make the job of contact tracers immediately easier, said Kindrachuk.
What it will do is highlight hot spots for transmission, which could help health officials focus in on outbreak areas sooner, he said.
One of the confounding factors of the novel coronavirus is the ability of those infected to transmit the disease while asymptomatic, said Kindrachuk. The transmission period can be in the range of five days, he said. That means people may not know they’ve been exposed and could transmit the virus for days before they’re notified.
“Being able to have an app like this, where you get notified extremely quickly if somebody has tested positive, that may decrease your ability to transmit the virus by days, and I think that’s quite critical,” Kindrachuk told CBC Information Radio host Marcy Markusa.
Use of the app is voluntary, but its effectiveness is dependent on how many Manitobans download it. Friesen said in order for it to help health officials, 60 per cent or more of a target population must use it, but some experts say it doesn’t need to be used by a majority to have a positive impact.
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Two months after it was rolled out in Ontario, Jha said the app has had little social marketing help. On the plus side, there is some early evidence suggesting a greater proportion of people who reported a contact are now being tested, some of which is attributable to the app, he said.
“That’s good news, but the levels of uptake still remain low,” he said.
Kindrachuk agrees the impact of the app locally is tied to uptake. Large-scale benefits of the tool may not be immediately clear, he said, but it could help inform how apps like it are used in the future.
“In the months and years after COVID, we’ll get a real sense of how well the app performed,” he said.
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