PM Trudeau: Feds will soon 'strongly' recommend contact tracing app
OTTAWA -- Responding to the need to increase the capacity to trace any possible contacts of confirmed COVID-19 cases, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the federal government will soon be “strongly recommending” Canadians download a to-be-determined monitoring and exposure notification app.
In the meantime federal employees are ready to make thousands of contact tracing calls a day, seven days a week.
During his Friday morning address outlining the latest federal pandemic measures, Trudeau said that the federal government has trained federal employees who can make 3,600 contact tracing calls a day, and in addition, Statistics Canada has trained another 1,700 interviewers who can make up to 20,000 calls a day.
The federal government is offering this help to all the provinces and territories to triage any backlogs or surges in demand for contact tracing. Trudeau said they are already helping Ontario and are ready to make calls for other jurisdictions at any time.
“We need to accelerate our ability to do contact tracing. After we've confirmed and isolated new cases, we have to get in touch with everyone who may have been exposed to the virus and make sure they take measures to quarantine and monitor themselves for symptoms or get tested,” Trudeau said.
The prime minister said that increased contact tracing is just one of the key benchmarks needed to be met in order to reopen safely. Testing capacity needs to be scaled up to quickly isolate new cases, so work is underway to procure reagents and swabs, and data collected needs to be quickly shared across provincial and territorial borders.
TO RECOMMEND APP SOON
In order for people to “move around freely,” the ability to pinpoint and quarantine new cases is required, said the prime minister, explaining that the federal government is looking into various applications to help the government monitor the virus’ spread.
Trudeau said the government is currently working with “number of different partners” on potential contact tracing and exposure notification applications, and that in the coming weeks Ottawa intends to “recommend strongly to Canadians a particular app that will help us manage the spread of COVID-19.”
Tools to aide in this have already been implemented in other countries, including South Korea and Australia.
Trudeau said one of the challenges with the apps so far is that the app has to be open on your phone to work, draining battery. He said Canada is working with Apple and Google on fixes expected in June to address this.
However, serious privacy questions remain about using cell phone apps to monitor Canadians.
Earlier this month federal, provincial and territorial privacy commissioners issued a statement calling for governments to ensure that any applications being developed or recommended respect Canadian privacy laws.
Among these privacy watchdog’s recommendations:
- App use must be voluntary and based on user consent;
- It must come with high degrees of transparency as to how the information will be used as well as subject to independent oversight;
- The scope of the app’s ability to monitor users’ behavior and location must be science-based;
- That the program is as minimally intrusive as possible, proportional to the public health necessity;
- The data collected is de-identified and aggregated as much as possible; and
- That the app come with time-limit measures that see any personal information collected destroyed when the crisis ends.
“If done properly, tracing applications can achieve both privacy and public health goals at the same time. Everything hinges on design, and appropriate design depends on respect for certain key privacy principles,” said Privacy Commissioner of Canada Daniel Therrien in a statement.
TESTING RATES STILL LACKING
On Thursday, Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland held their tenth call with provincial and territorial leaders since the pandemic was declared, where the federal government’s offer of taking the lead on a national testing and tracing strategy was discussed.
With more aspects of society beginning to reopen, current testing rates are still lacking, particularly in Ontario and Quebec where the majority of current COVID-19 cases are.
On average 28,000 people are tested daily nationwide, though for many weeks the target rate federal health officials want to see as more restrictions lift is closer to 60,000 per day.
“That capacity hasn’t been reached yet anywhere in the country,” Trudeau said, in part because in some provinces the outbreaks appear to be under control so the need is not there.
In total, Canada has tested nearly 1.4 million people, and as of Friday morning there have been more than 81,000 confirmed cases, of which half are already recovered.
Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Thursday that, despite the number of tests done, with a population of more than 37 million the true infection rate remains unknown, and is likely much higher than current data indicates.
During testimony at the House of Commons operations’ committee on Friday, Health Minister Patty Hajdu said they are continuing to talk with the provinces about how “integral” it is to increase the number of tests being conducted.
NEW SITE TO DETERMINE AID ELIGIBILITY
While Friday’s address didn’t include any new promises of funding or expansions on current aid programs, the prime minister did announce that the federal government has created a new site where Canadians can fill in basic information to see which of the more than $150 billion in direct financial assistance programs they may be eligible for.