Your COVID-19 roundup: COVID Alert exposure notification app launches in Ontario

Your COVID-19 roundup: COVID Alert exposure notification app launches in Ontario

COVID Alert: exposure notification app

Ontarians can now download and start using the COVID Alert application, becoming the first users of the new technology in Canada.

The exposure notification app, which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier Doug Ford officially launched on Friday, comes nearly one month after it was first scheduled to roll out in Ontario on July 2.

While all Canadians can download the app, something Trudeau strongly encouraged, the system is only connected to the Ontario health network so far, meaning only Ontarians can start receiving notifications about COVID-19 exposures.

"We’re working hard with our Atlantic provincial partners to integrate their health systems into the app next; at the same time we’re in discussions with other provinces and we expect that they’ll be coming on board soon as well," said Trudeau.

"This is another tool to protect your health," said the prime minister, who noted that he downloaded the app this morning.

"The more people use it, the better it can trace and therefore slow the spread of the virus," he said. "In fact health experts say that if enough people sign up, this app can help prevent future outbreaks of COVID-19 in Canada."

Ford said the "made-in-Ontario" app is going to be a "huge help," especially as two more regions, Toronto and Peel, entered stage three on Friday. He pleaded with Ontarians to start using the technology.

"Please everyone, please download the app and help do your part," he said.

The app notifies people if they have been in contact with someone during the past two weeks who has tested positive for COVID-19. It does this by exchanging random codes between phones in close proximity using Bluetooth signals.

If a person tests positive for COVID-19, their local public health unit will provide them with a "one-time key" that they can then enter into the app. That code will then be used to let others with the app know if they've come into close contact with the individual, meaning "at least 15 minutes and less than 2 metres apart," according to a federal government briefing document.

Trudeau said the delay in rolling out the app in other provinces has to do with ensuring provincial public health agencies have the ability to give people a code if they test positive.

 

If someone receives a notification that they've been exposed, they will then be encouraged to contact their local public health authority for further guidance on what to do.

Federal officials said during a media briefing that the tool is not a contact tracing app and that local public health units would continue to manually perform this function.

While privacy concerns have been at the forefront of the app's development, both the federal and Ontario governments have stressed the anonymity of the app and the fact they got input from the federal and Ontario privacy commissioners, both of whom supported the launch on Friday. The app will not be able to identify a person's location, name, address, the time or place they were close to someone else with the app or if they are currently close to someone who previously tested positive for COVID-19.

Patricia Kosseim, information and privacy commissioner of Ontario, said she supports using an exposure notification app to help control COVID-19's spread "provided it is used in the way it's been designed to respect the privacy of Ontarians."

"This app will only work if people trust their personal information will be protected and choose to use the technology," Kosseim said in a statement. "Based on our review of the app and acceptance of our recommendations, I am satisfied that there are strong measures built in to help protect individual privacy." 

The app was created in collaboration with the Ontario government, BlackBerry and volunteers with Ottawa-based company Shopify.

More regions enter stage three

As Toronto and Peel joined 31 other regions in stage three on Friday, Ford said the government is adding more public health rules for restaurants, bars and some other establishments. This includes requiring customers to stay seated both in indoor and outdoor areas, except for certain instances like going to the washroom.

Bars, restaurants and tour boat operators will also have to keep logs of patrons for 30 days and give those logs to the medical officer of health or an inspector to help with COVID-19 contact tracing.

"These tools and measures are absolutely critical to ensuring our province reopens safely," said Ford, going on to issue a warning to Ontarians in advance of the long weekend and encouraging people to download the app and follow public health guidance.

"We’ve seen what happened if we don’t listen to the advice," he said, pointing to the United States, which has seen a spike in cases in recent weeks.

"A month ago our neighbours in the U.S. were heading into the July 4 long weekend, the numbers were down, schools were set to open in four to six weeks, bars and restaurants were reopening," said Ford. "That long weekend people went to parties, beaches and gatherings, acting like COVID-19 was over; you just have to look at what happened since then to know how devastating it has been. Some regions aren’t letting their kids go back to school now, businesses have had to shut down again and cases are at an all time high.

"We don’t have to go down that road, the future is in our hands and it’s up to us to write the next chapter," said Ford. "It’s the difference between our kids going back to school or not in September, businesses staying open or being closed once again, so please be responsible and think about others."

Long-term care staffing

Following the release of a report calling on the government to boost staffing levels in long-term care homes, Premier Ford was asked whether he'd commit to funding now.

"I don't believe in waiting," said Ford, despite the Ministry of Long-Term Care saying yesterday that the study would "inform the development of a comprehensive staffing strategy to be released later this year."

"We're gonna have money there to hire more staff, that's a priority, we just have to put a number to that," said Ford, adding that he's going to be briefed on the report.

"Let's make a move, a lot of long-term care homes are in desperate need of the (personal support workers) and nurses," he said. "We aren't going to be waiting around, we'll be putting money forward."

What's next for reopening schools?

School boards are posting notices to families following the province's announcement on the reopening plan for schools, asking them to be patient as they figure out next steps.

Elementary school students are set to return to the classroom full-time, with high school students either going to school daily or accessing classes through a mix of in-class and online learning, depending on their school board.

In a July 30 notice to families, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) said the Ministry of Education's plans "provide high level parameters for boards to follow, but in general do not provide details as to how school boards will meet all the provisions, conditions and expectations of the plans."

The board is reviewing the province's guidance and is working with Toronto Public Health "to develop operation plans," which will include details on health and safety measures, stated the notice from Interim Director of Education Carlene Jackson and Chair Robin Pilkey.

"We understand that you have many questions and are eager to know about the details. We ask that you please give us time to develop the operational plans and review these with the Board of Trustees," they wrote, adding that trustees will be presented with a plan early next week.

The Peel District School Board noted in its memo to families that students can opt for remote learning instead of physically going to school. These students will be taught by board educators, "but not necessarily by staff assigned to a particular school or class."

The board will be sending out an email asking families to pre-register for in-person or remote learning by Aug. 14. Families will also be notified when they can move their children from online to in-person learning.

Premier Ford was asked on Friday about the government's decision not to include in its plan smaller cohort sizes for young students.

Ford listed off components of the $309 million the government announced to help reopen schools, adding that he relied on health professionals for the plan.

"Are we going to face a challenge? I'm sure we're going to face a challenge. But did we get the best medical advice we could ever get from some of the smartest minds in the country? Yes we did," he said.

Associate Medical Officer of Health Dr. Barbara Yaffe said it's ideal to stay two metres apart, or to wear a mask. She justified the government's decision for elementary school students, saying evidence suggests "children under 10 years of age first of all, don't tend to get infected as much. If they do, they're very mild or in fact they're often asymptomatic and they don't tend to spread it to other people.

"So, we can learn more of course, but that is the experience so far ... so, we'll do our best, we'll see what happens," she said.

Asked about what would happen if someone in a school tests positive for COVID-19, Yaffe said the people in that individual's classroom would get tested. If there are cases in different classes, the first step would be to try to identify whether the two cases are linked.

But she added that it would be "extremely rare" for an entire school to have to shut down.

"Almost never will this be required," she said, though adding that "obviously, there could be circumstances."

Comptroller General 

Jackson, who took over as the TDSB's interim director on July 15, is moving on and is set to take on a new job as the province's comptroller general, the board announced on July 31.

In her role as comptroller general, which she starts on Oct. 13, Jackson will work with government ministries and agencies "to provide advice, share information on effective risk management and enhance internal oversight of the province’s finances." The role is a deputy minister-level position.

Jackson joined the board in 2017 as the associate director of business operations and service excellence. Prior to that she was the chief financial officer at the Toronto Catholic District School Board and worked at all levels of government, holding positions in the province's finance ministry and the federal Treasury Board Secretariat.

The province announced that it would be creating a new Office of the Comptroller General in February and that the hiring process would begin that month.

"Creating an Office of the Comptroller General will help the government root out potential problems before they take hold, while better protecting frontline programs," stated Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy in a news release at the time. "By utilizing these best practices from the private sector, we are bringing the rigour of business to the business of government."

Photo Credit: Steve Russell/Toronto Star

Sneh Duggal

Reporter, Queen's Park Briefing

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