Minister of Health Tyler Shandro removes his mask while announcing a new agreement between Alberta Health Services and a local manufacturer to produce medical equipment in Calgary, Alta. on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020. Shandro is defending Alberta’s COVID-19 tracing app despite revelations it has been used in just 19 cases since the spring. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Alberta health minister defends province’s COVID-tracing app despite few contacts

Alberta health minister defends province’s COVID-tracing app despite few contacts

EDMONTON — Alberta’s health minister is defending the province’s COVID-19 tracing app despite revelations it has tracked just 19 cases since the spring.

Tyler Shandro said Tuesday he is in favour of all resources that help in the fight against the pandemic, but reiterated the federal app isn’t a good fit for Alberta. The province has a total of just over 10,000 active infections.

“The app here in Alberta, ABTraceTogether, is one of the many tools that we have in the system to be able to help relieve our contact tracers,” Shandro told the house during an angry exchange with Opposition Leader Rachel Notley.

Alberta Health says ABTraceTogether has to date identified 70 close contacts in 19 cases.

Alberta and British Columbia are the only provinces that have not signed onto the federal app, COVID Alert, which has been downloaded well over five million times.

Notley accused Shandro of refusing to adopt the federal app because of long-standing personal and political friction between United Conservative Premier Jason Kenney and Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“Will the minister apologize for the premier’s decision to put his feud with Ottawa ahead of the health and safety of Albertans?” the NDP leader asked Shandro.

“This is not a provincial versus federal issue,” Shandro replied. “The (Alberta) app is a contact-tracing app. The federal app is not a contact-tracing app. It’s an anonymous notification app. It does not relieve pressures for our contact tracers.”

Anyone testing positive who uses the federal app can punch in a code and the app will send alerts to phones that were within two metres of the infected person’s device for significant periods in the prior 14 days.

Alberta faces skyrocketing COVID-19 daily case numbers that are impacting the health system and contract tracers. On Tuesday, the province reported 773 new cases; 268 people were in hospital.

Direct contact tracing has been reduced to priority groups and the province is working to hire 400 more contact tracers to supplement its current roster of 800.

On Monday, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, chief medical health officer, said that with 15 new contacts for every new case and up to 1,000 cases a day, tracers are overwhelmed by 15,000 contacts every 24 hours.

Officials said that, as of Monday, they had not been able to trace the origin of 73 per cent of cases.

Notley said it’s ludicrous to support a “broken” app that is feeding a tracing system that is itself overwhelmed and broken.

“The dysfunctional logic of the UCP blame-trust over there would almost be funny if it wasn’t putting lives on the line,” she said.

“People in other provinces get an automatic text message when they’ve been near someone who has tested positive. Albertans do not. It is long overdue.

Shandro responded that the government is acting on the advice of Hinshaw.

“I quite frankly find it appalling, I find it shameful, and I find it disgusting that the NDP continue to undermine the response to the pandemic (and) undermine one of the many tools we have to respond to the pandemic.”

Health spokeswoman Zoe Cooper said ABTraceTogether has 268,000 users.

“The work of contact tracing is vital in identifying and containing the virus and to better protect the population. The more Albertans who download ABTraceTogether, the more effective it will be in helping limit the spread of COVID-19,” said Cooper.

“We need each Albertan to do their part.”

This report by the Canadian Press was first published Nov. 17, 2020.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press