COVID Alert app nears 3 million users, but only 514 positive test reports

OTTAWA — New numbers out of the Public Health Agency of Canada show only a gradual increase of downloads of Canada’s COVID-19 exposure notification app since the start of the month, while the number of Canadians using the tool to report their positive test remains low.

The organization told CTVNews.ca on Tuesday that the app has been downloaded 2.94 million times since July 31, however, only 514 users, all of whom are located in Ontario, have actually notified the app about their positive test results, despite the province having recorded more than 9,000 cases since the app came into effect. This is up from about 2.2 million downloads and 100 test disclosures in the first active month.

The new statistics come as politicians once again ramp up calls for Canadians to download the software amid climbing case counts nationwide.

After weeks of relative quiet about the use of COVID Alert, it got two prominent mentions last Wednesday during the much-anticipated Liberal throne speech and then again during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s address to the nation later than evening.

“We’ve got the COVID Alert app. Take the teacher who felt fine, but he gets a positive after the app warned her she’d been exposed. COVID Alert meant she went home instead of the classroom. It’s a powerful, free tool that’s easy to use and protects your privacy. So if you haven’t already, download it off the App Store or Google Play,” said Trudeau.

COVID Alert allows users to disclose a positive coronavirus test and alerts anyone who has come close to that person within 14 days via Bluetooth tracking. Public health officials have stressed that it does not track location and has no way of knowing an individual’s location, address, contacts, or health information.

A spokesperson within the prime minister’s office told CTVNews.ca downloads of the app spiked immediately following his public address. Numbers show there were at least 100,000 downloads by Apple and Android users during the hour following.

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc, Health Minister Patty Hajdu, and Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam echoed Trudeau’s remarks on Tuesday during a public health update.

“Please download the COVID-19 Alert app and join the three million Canadians that have done so to date,” said Hajdu.

Tam also pointed to another online tool dubbed “COVID Trends” released by the Public Health Agency of Canada, which “provides [users] with a number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in your area within the last 14 days.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford made an urgent plea for Ontarians to download COVID Alert on Monday when the province reported 700 new cases, the highest daily infections ever recorded.

Ontario was the first province to embrace the software in late July but since then, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Saskatchewan have all adopted the technology.

Questions still linger though about whether the app is achieving its intended goal of breaking “the cycle of infection.”

EXPERT OPINION

A July report in the Harvard Business Review argues that when adoption is voluntary, “contact-tracing apps present the classic chicken-and-egg — or “cold start” — problem experienced by any platform seeking strong network effects: They have virtually no value until they reach a critical mass of users.”

The solution goes beyond design features and marketing tactics, the authors state, but relies instead on localized uptake followed by national implementation.

“The contact-tracing app should be designed so it is instantly valuable to anyone in the targeted community who downloads it…One way to make the app instantly valuable is for it to provide information on local contagion so users know the risks. Another is to include a symptoms-tracking function so users can enter their symptoms and be told when to seek medical help.”

University of Waterloo Professor Plinio Mortia, who heads up the Ubiquitous Health Technology Lab, echoed the need for user customization.

“It’s one of the principles of persuasion design, that tailoring of the solution to the specific user. We’re trying to make an app that will be downloaded by 35 million people across Canada, but we’re being very generic to target everybody, which is not always the best solution,” he said, adding that there’s a key talking point missing from public health directives about the app: motivation.

“They need to tell the public why they should be doing this, why it’s important, why [Canadians] need to download it beyond the fact that it’s safe,” he said. “They still haven’t told people what the real impact having the app on your phone and reporting a COVID-19 diagnosis will have on the population.”

Blayne Haggart, associate professor at the department of political science at Brock University, who’s written extensively about technology use in public policy settings, argues the federal government’s messaging has been misguided.

“For a health policy intervention, you would think you would start with saying ‘this is going to have a great effect on you know, boosting the economy, or stopping a pandemic in this way’ but instead everyone was talking about it in terms of its privacy,” he said.

“That’s not a healthy way to design any kind of government policy.”

Haggart says while privacy is important, effectiveness is equally as vital.

At the time of publication, government officials had not yet responded to a CTVNews.ca inquiry about whether they had identified a threshold to measure success or failure of adoption and the impact of those results on public health.

“This is a general issue with technology and tech design when it’s put into the public policy sphere. It’s not considered in its full context,” said Haggart.

Manitoba and Quebec have also indicated they too will introduce COVID Alert into their regions. LeBlanc said the government is committed to working with and supporting provinces in their contact-tracing capabilities.

“Our government is actively working with other provinces and territories and [the app] will be rolled out to more Canadians very shortly, and I encourage everyone to download it,” he said.

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