158 Albertans with COVID-19 reported their illness to province's multimillion-dollar app

·4 min read
The Alberta government is contracted to pay for technical support and updates for the ABTraceTogether app, even though the government is no longer performing widespread contact tracing. (Janet French/CBC News - image credit)
The Alberta government is contracted to pay for technical support and updates for the ABTraceTogether app, even though the government is no longer performing widespread contact tracing. (Janet French/CBC News - image credit)

The Alberta government will spend $4.3 million by year's end on a contact tracing phone application that has notified about 1,500 people of potential exposure to COVID-19.

Months after Alberta scaled back contact tracing efforts, the government still has contracts with Deloitte and IBM to maintain and upgrade the beleaguered ABTraceTogether app, which launched in May 2020.

Although 317,000 people have downloaded the app onto their phones, only 158 had entered a positive COVID-19 test result into the app between its May 2020 launch and last week, according to Alberta Health.

"That's an infinitesimal fraction of the number of people who have been exposed to COVID in the province," said Dr. James Talbot, a professor of public health at the University of Alberta and Alberta's former chief medical officer of health.

Nearly 306,000 people tested positive for COVID-19 in Alberta since the pandemic began.

The app's lost potential is a disappointment to Talbot, who said it should be a powerful tool during an outbreak of communicable disease.

"It could be that it wasn't advertised widely enough," he said. "It could be that the case wasn't made to Albertans for why it was so important for Albertans to do this. It could be that Albertans have a natural tendency to not want to be tracked."

WATCH | Alberta premier defends ABTraceTogether app

CBC News obtained the usage data after filing a freedom of information request to the health ministry. A request in August for the information was refused by the office of then-health minister Tyler Shandro.

There is no data on how many contacts notified by the app ultimately tested positive for COVID-19.

Integrated contact tracing

The app uses Bluetooth technology to detect when another app user's phone is within 10 metres. If a person tests positive for COVID-19, they would input that information into the app to alert other users who have been near them during the last 21 days.

The ABTraceTogether website says contact tracers will ask people who test positive to upload that data so they can track their close contacts.

But since July 29, Alberta Health Services (AHS) contact tracers have only followed up on COVID-19 cases linked to high-risk settings like a hospital or long-term care home.

AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson said that since late July, tracers haven't been asking patients, other than those linked to high-risk settings, to upload app data.

Federal app got more action

Talbot said that integration of manual contact tracing with automated tracking is what distinguished ABTraceTogether from the federal government's COVID Alert app.

Last year, the Alberta government was adamant about using its own app — and not COVID Alert — because it provided data to contact tracers.

Abandoning widespread contact tracing made the app less useful, Talbot said.

As of Sept. 28, nearly 6.7 million people had downloaded COVID Alert.

A Health Canada spokesperson said 34,000 people in eight provinces and one territory had voluntarily reported positive COVID-19 test results since the federal app launched in July 2020.

That's about one in 200 users. Comparatively, Alberta's app saw one report of a positive case from every 2,000 users.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press
Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The federal app began tracking notifications in February 2021. By early August, more than 75,000 people received a notification they were a close contact of someone who tested positive.

COVID Alert cost the federal government $3.5 million in 2020-21, but they have not yet provided a cost for this fiscal year.

Mathieu Fenniak, a Calgary software developer, was among the first to raise concerns last year that the ABTraceTogether app didn't work properly on iPhones.

Although developers have since released updated versions, Fenniak said the underlying technology will never reliably allow iPhones to exchange data.

According to information provided by Alberta Health, the government is under contract with Deloitte until Dec. 31, 2021, to provide strategy, technical improvements and support for the app.

The government is set to pay Deloitte a total of $1.7 million for its work on the app. IBM also has a $2.6-million contract to provide maintenance and support.

"Four million dollars for 158 usages of the app seems quite expensive and a very inefficient use of tax dollars," Fenniak said.

Health Minister Jason Copping's office did not respond to a request for an interview.

Talbot, who still believes the technology behind ABTraceTogether could help speed up investigations of outbreaks, hopes the software can be repurposed to help investigate cases of food-borne illness or influenza.

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