Manitobans can now mobilize free smartphone technology to help contain the spread of COVID-19.

The federal government’s COVID Alert app was first launched two months ago in Ontario and is now active in Manitoba.

It’s technology health officials and experts say requires big buy-in for everyone’s benefit.

Now that it’s available in Manitoba, Madi Vandale plans to use it.

“I find that app would be extremely useful,” said Vandale. “I mean people have so many contacts throughout the day it’s almost impossible to know where you would’ve made those contacts if you were to test positive.”

Once you download the app, it exchanges random codes through Bluetooth technology with nearby phones.

You’ll be notified by the app if you’ve been in close contact with someone who has tested positive, as long as they’re also using the app.

If a person with the app tests positive they receive a one-time-key from public health to punch into the app. That will notify other app users they may have been exposed if they were within two metres of the person for at least 15 minutes within the past 14 days.

“If you got that alert it won’t tell you when, it won’t tell you where. It’ll just say that you’ve been in contact with someone who’s tested positive for COVID-19,” said Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief public health officer. “The advice would be to get tested and to self-isolate pending results.”

The federal government said the app has no way of knowing your location, personal or health information and protects your privacy.

The province’s health minister said it requires a minimum of 60 per cent of Manitobans to participate to be effective.

“This is a challenge,” said Friesen. “You will have some people who say I don’t know if this is safe.

“Canadians need to decide for themselves if they’ve got a comfort level to use it. I would suggest, from what I’ve seen and the kind of disclosures the federal government has given because Health Canada has built this, that people have every reason to be confident in this tool.”

Public health officials won’t be notified by the app if you’re a close contact - only you will, Roussin said.

However, the app doesn’t replace public health investigations done by contact tracers — those will still take place, meaning people who don’t sign up for the app or don’t have a phone will still be notified through the traditional process of contact tracing if they’re deemed to be a close contact.

If you do download the app, Manitoba Public Health said it’s possible you may be notified by both the app and through the regular process of contact tracing. It’s also possible you may only be notified by the app and not by public health, if public health investigators don’t deem you to be a close contact.

HOW THE APP COULD HELP FIND CASES FASTER

Jason Kindrachuk, a University of Manitoba expert and Canada research chair in emerging viruses, said the addition of the app in Manitoba could help public health find cases faster.

“We know that there is this period of time before somebody develops symptoms that they’re able to transmit the virus and in some cases that can be up to five days for them to develop symptoms,” said Kindrachuk. “This whole idea of early identification of cases is so critical for us to be able to try and curb transmission.”

“To me the advantage of having something as discreet as basically an app on a phone that just tells you, ‘maybe you should go in and get a test’ will help things move along as far as being able to get through this pandemic. It’s not going to be the stand-alone silver bullet that everybody is looking for.”

In provinces like Manitoba where there have been reports of long waits for testing, Kindrachuk said the app has the power to give people a clearer idea about whether they may have been exposed to someone with the virus.

“There’s no question right now that capacity’s an issue,” said Kindrachuk. “To me what this provides is a little more of a targeted approach. Right now a lot of people are going to get testing based on whether or not they’ve heard somebody was exposed or they maybe surmise that they’ve had a potential exposure.

“If you’re notified, you know that you potentially had that exposure. So it’ll drive us from doing more random testing, where people try to get random testing to maybe hope that they aren’t positive, to doing it with the approach of saying ‘if you get the warning, then please go and get that test’ and does it reduce that backlog of people that are just randomly trying to go.”

While he sees it as a move in the right direction, Kindrachuk said the app is still in the early stages and it’ll take time to determine its effectiveness.

“I don’t think we’ll see the full benefit of this until later on in 2021 and probably not until after the pandemic, unfortunately, when we’re able to go through all the data to understand what were the benefits over time as this system was implemented,” said Kindrachuk. “I think we need to try and push as many people to get on to this to really prove whether or not it is effective. 

“We don’t want to see a fail because there just wasn’t simply a great enough uptake.”

APP USE MANDATORY ON WORK PHONES FOR CITY OF SELKIRK EMPLOYEES

While use of the app is voluntary, the City of Selkirk has made it mandatory on city-issued smartphones.

About 30 staff members from bylaw officers to public works employees are required to use the app, according to chief administrative officer Duane Nicol

“Frankly it’s kind of a no-brainer for us,” said Nicol. “It’s one more tool in our toolbox to help us keep our employees safe and our community safe.”

It’s an app Staycee Berthin voluntarily put on her personal phone partly because of her job.

“I work in the service industry so it’s kind of a really big thing I need right now,” said Berthin. “So if it helps keep everyone safe, why not?”

COVID Alert is a free download available through the App Store or Google Play and has been downloaded about three million times in Canada. 

The federal government said since the app was first launched, 504 Canadians have voluntarily input their one-time-key so far to notify others they’ve been exposed.