Federal COVID-19 contact tracing app now being rolled out in NWT

People living in the Northwest Territories will now be able to use the federal government’s COVID-19 tracing app as per directions from the territory’s health authorities, adding it to several other provinces already on board.

Prime Minister  and N.W.T. Premier Caroline Cochrane announced in a news release issued Thursday that people in the territory who test positive for the virus can now receive one-time keys from their health authority to use with COVID Alert.

It’s a smartphone app that allows users to report a positive coronavirus test and alert others of a potential exposure. It exchanges random codes via Bluetooth with nearby phones which have the app installed.

A user who test positive for COVID-19 will get a one-time key from their health authority to enter into the app, which will then notify other users who may have come in close contact with that person for at least 15 minutes. It will also direct users on next steps based on the local public health advice, the release says.

Several provinces have already signed on to Canada’s alert app including Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec. Last week,Trudeau urged Canadians who live in Alberta and B.C. to also download the app, despite a lack of buy-in from the health authorities in those provinces.

“The COVID Alert app is a tool that the people of the Northwest Territories can use to help protect themselves, their loved ones, and their communities from COVID-19,” Trudeau said in a statement.

“As more people use it, we can slow the spread of the virus and help prevent future waves.”

N.W.T. did ‘privacy impact assessment’ 

In a previous interview with CBC News in late October, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola said the territory was undergoing a “privacy impact assessment” on the app. She also said at the time that in the N.W.T., it wouldn’t be as useful as it is in other jurisdictions since N.W.T’s past COVID-19 cases were all related to travel and not community-spread.

“One of the issues that we are grappling with is the number of false alarms. So you could get an alert and say that you were potentially exposed to a COVID case,” Kandola said at the time, adding that the territory is trying to avoid having people in isolation who might not have had need to be. She said this could cause “economic and societal disruption.”

As of Wednesday the territory has a total of 15 cases of the virus, none of which are active cases.

In the news release Thursday, the federal government says it is safeguarding the “confidentiality and privacy of all Canadians,” and that the app uses” strong measures to protect any data it collects, and does not track a user’s location or collect personally identifiable information.”

It added Canada’s privacy commissioner is engaged on COVID Alert, and supports its use.

“Our biggest priority is protecting the health and well-being of our residents and communities,” said Premier Cochrane in a statement.

“As cases continue to rise across the country, the COVID Alert app will help limit the spread of the virus in the Northwest Territories and provide comfort and peace of mind to residents as we continue to navigate this difficult time. I strongly encourage all residents to download the app.”

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