October 23, 2020

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Manitoba adopting COVID-alert technology

Smartphone app will be functional later in week; Prairie Mountain Region man in 70s becomes province's 20th death

Manitobans will soon join others elsewhere in the country with smartphone technology designed to alert them if they've been exposed to someone who has COVID-19.

"Now is the time to download that COVID Alert application," provincial Health Minister Cameron Friesen said Monday afternoon, adding the notification technology will be available by the end of the week.

The app can be downloaded here.

"Let's do what we can," Friesen said.

Manitoba's 20th COVID death — a man in his 70s hospitalized in Prairie Mountain Health region — was reported Monday, along with 39 new infections, 22 of them in Winnipeg. There are 13 people hospitalized in Manitoba hospitals, seven in intensive care. Four people are in Winnipeg hospitals, two of them in the ICU.

The COVID Alert app will let people know if they might have unknowingly been exposed to the virus. (Justin Tang / The Canadian Press files)

CP

The COVID Alert app will let people know if they might have unknowingly been exposed to the virus. (Justin Tang / The Canadian Press files)

Friesen said an additional testing site will open later this week in Winnipeg to help reduce long waits at existing location, but wouldn't provide any details, saying only that Dynacare will be providing "additional capacity" for screening sites that will benefit all Manitobans.

The COVID Alert phone app won't reduce wait times but will let people know if they might have unknowingly been exposed to the virus.

"It's another tool we can refer to in this complex response to COVID-19," Friesen said. So far, the app is being used by Ontario, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan.

The Manitoba government has been working to make it available but does not receive any information about those who use it, he said.

"It doesn't rely on GPS; it doesn't give government information about who you are or where you are," he said.

Every day, the app checks a list of random codes from people who tell the app they tested positive. Anyone who has been near the phone of one of those people within the past 14 days receives a notification.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held a press conference about the app when it was released in July. (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press files)

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held a press conference about the app when it was released in July. (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press files)

The random codes do not identity anyone, Friesen said.

"If you contract COVID-19... then it is still voluntary for you to enter that one-time code into your app that will then send a signal to other phones and identify whether contact has taken place," said the health minister.

The app works only if it has enough users, Friesen said his understanding is that more than half of Manitoba's residents need to use it in order for it to be effective.

As of Sept. 21, the Canadian Digital Service reported 2,701,335 downloads (1,659,892 iPhone and 1,041,443 Android) of the COVID Alert, said Prof. Mark Crowley, an expert in artificial intelligence and technology at the University of Waterloo. He's given the app positive reviews for privacy and ease of use.

"It’s very encouraging that more provinces are coming on board," Crowley said via email Monday after learning Manitoba is adopting it.

"I am hopeful that more people will use it, especially now that the second wave is crashing in across many provinces," he said.

"But I don’t understand the resistance to it. It has been built in a way that really ensures privacy and it doesn’t take any effort to use."

The app doesn't replace the conventional public health investigations and contact tracing, Friesen said.

Every day, the app checks a list of random codes from people who tell the app they tested positive. Anyone who has been near the phone of one of those people within the past 14 days receives a notification. (Ryan Remiorz / The Canadian Press files)

THE CANADIAN PRESS

Every day, the app checks a list of random codes from people who tell the app they tested positive. Anyone who has been near the phone of one of those people within the past 14 days receives a notification. (Ryan Remiorz / The Canadian Press files)

On Friday, Manitoba chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin announced pandemic restrictions for metropolitan Winnipeg starting Monday mandating mask-wearing in indoor public spaces and limiting gatherings — both indoors and outside — to 10, not including the hosts.

Close to half of all new COVID-19 cases in recent weeks have been linked to bars and restaurants. Roussin couldn't say Monday how many are workers or patrons or where they acquired the virus but last week he provided examples of behaviours that are helping to spread the infection in Winnipeg, including one person in their 20s with COVID-19 symptoms who went bar hopping, leaving 36 contacts in their wake.

Brandon mayor offers advice

Embrace the mask, follow the fundamentals and this will all be over before you know it, says the voice of experience.

On the first day of pandemic response restrictions imposed on Winnipeg and its neighbours, Brandon's mayor talked about how his community survived when similar public health orders were imposed from Aug. 24 to Sept. 18 on the entire Prairie Mountain Health region.

"The time goes fast and it needs to be done," Mayor Rick Chrest said by phone Monday.

Embrace the mask, follow the fundamentals and this will all be over before you know it, says the voice of experience.

On the first day of pandemic response restrictions imposed on Winnipeg and its neighbours, Brandon's mayor talked about how his community survived when similar public health orders were imposed from Aug. 24 to Sept. 18 on the entire Prairie Mountain Health region.

"The time goes fast and it needs to be done," Mayor Rick Chrest said by phone Monday.

"Really, it's not that bad," he said. By now, most Manitobans have masks and are used to having to wear them while running errands and shopping, he said. Some people may wear their heart on their sleeve but in Brandon, people began wearing their heart on their mask.

"People were having fun choosing a mask and designing masks," he said. Crafty people sewed Elvis masks. Fans supported local teams and institutions, wearing Wheat Kings, Blue Bombers and Assiniboine Community College masks, said Chrest who has a collection. People got in the habit of wearing them and popping a mask on whenever they go inside a public place, he said.

"Most people are still wearing the masks in Brandon," he said. "People are used to it." On Monday, Prairie Mountain Health was the only region in Manitoba not reporting any new COVID-19 cases. It had a total of 29 active cases, with just nine in Brandon.

Chrest says he would never say "I told you so," but when his small city became the first in Manitoba declared a code-orange with COVID-19 restrictions slapped on it, he warned the rest of the province's towns and cities they could be next.

Now Winnipeg and its surrounding municipalities including Selkirk are "it" with mandatory masks in public places and indoor and outdoor gatherings limited to just 10. Chrest reminded Winnipeggers that the number of active cases per capita and people testing positive in West Man in late August was at least twice as bad as it is now in Winnipeg. By having the pandemic restrictions imposed now, it should make it easier to flatten the curve in the provincial capital, he said.

"Code orange really put an exclamation mark on the situation," said Chrest. "It really snapped people to attention and got them to bear down on the fundamentals again."

-Carol Sanders

While masks must be worn in bars and restaurants except while seated at tables, it's the individual who violates the order — not the bar or restaurant — facing a fine from enforcement officers under the current public health orders, Roussin said, adding people refusing to wear masks can be denied entry.

Officials are now working with bars and restaurants about further measures to stop the spread, Roussin said.

Other provinces with rising caseloads linked to pubs, nightclubs and eateries have taken steps such as ordering the volume of music to be turned down so people aren't crowding together and shouting to be heard, as well as limiting the number of patrons seated at a table and imposing earlier closing times.

Roussin didn't rule any of that out for Winnipeg and surrounding communities.

"Additional measures may be put in place," he said.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

   Read full biography

History

Updated on Monday, September 28, 2020 at 7:41 PM CDT: Replaces background photo

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