TORONTO -- Some Canadians who tested positive for COVID-19 are reporting that they never received a “one-time key” to enter their test results into the federal exposure notification app.

The app, called COVID Alert, was officially launched this summer, but has faced efficacy and access concerns since its inception. This month, several readers expressed confusion about the app and its “one-time key” system, a unique code that activates the app’s notification function, alerting users who may have been in close proximity to a positive case.

One reader said he only received a key once he asked for one — 10 days after testing positive.

“I was playing it by ear, waiting for public health. If it’s up to them to share it, I was just relying on that,” Kevin LeClair, a 36-year-old speech therapist in New Brunswick, told over the phone last week. “Clearly there’s a glitch.”

LeClair said he contracted COVID-19 from a coworker earlier this month and passed it on to his wife, a 34-year-old registered nurse, and their seven-year-old daughter, who has yet to experience any symptoms. After his positive test result on Oct. 10, he expected to be provided with a “one-time key,” but that never happened. On Monday this week, during a routine call from a public health nurse, he asked about the codes and was later provided with one.

But how many have gone unused or unassigned? At Tuesday’s public health briefing, Deputy Prime Minister Chyrstia Freeland said that the government isn’t relying on “a single magic bullet” like a smartphone app and that she was not aware of concerns related to missing COVID Alert key codes.

“Of course we need to look into [those concerns] and be sure that the app is working as well as it can,” she said at the Ottawa press conference.

App uptake has been relatively low, though growing. As of Oct. 15, COVID Alert has been downloaded about 4.5 million times, just 12 per cent of the national population. Two of the country’s largest provinces, British Columbia and Alberta, have yet to sign on, and none of the territories are using the app.

A tiny fraction of its millions of users have used a “one-time key” to report a positive COVID-19 result. Though there have been more than 200,000 confirmed cases of the virus across Canada, only about 1,700 keys have been used.

While it’s unclear how many of the app’s millions of users have not received a one-time key when they should have, LeClair’s case in New Brunswick isn’t a one-off incident. Other readers have expressed similar issues.

In Ontario last month, 33-year-old Ani Nersessian learned she was positive for COVID-19 only after calling the Toronto clinic where she got the test when her results wouldn’t show up on the public health testing site. But since the COVID Alert app directs Ontario users to that same public health testing site in order to get a one-time key, she wasn’t able to get a code.

“I started calling the clinic, Toronto Public Health, the app help line. I kept going around in circles,” she told over the phone Tuesday. “In the end, they told me ‘don’t worry about it, we’ll take care of the tracing.’”

In Ottawa, retired couple Chantal Ringuette, 57, and Joel Bernardi, 60, ordered a COVID-19 test through their health care provider via courier. Bernardi received a positive result from a private Toronto clinic, which said it doesn’t report results to public health. When Bernardi reported his results, he was told that he wouldn’t get a one-time key since the test was done at a private lab. The couple was disappointed. They had already alerted all of their contacts, but were curious to see how the app functioned and if their friends received exposure notifications. 

“You can’t rely on it,” Ringuette said over the phone from Ottawa on Tuesday. “It’s kind of like a little luxury. It’s not something that is very effective at doing contact tracing.”