Omicron variant, test backlog undermines the effectiveness of the COVID Alert app, says expert

A smartphone app launched by the Canadian government to help slow the spread of COVID-19 may be less effective in the latest wave of the pandemic, an expert said.

The COVID Alert app, launched in July 2020 by the federal government, works by using a cell phone’s Bluetooth signal to detect other app users coming within two meters for at least 15 minutes.

If a user tests positive for COVID-19, they should receive a code from their local health authority that they enter into the app.

When this happens, all other app users who came within range of the infected person’s phone will receive a notification alerting them that they have been exposed.

With PCR testing capability limited in provinces across Canada, many users of the COVID Alert app are unlikely to receive a one-time code needed to notify others of potential exposure, said Dr. Erica Moodie, Professor of Biostatistics at McGill University.

In addition, new evidence suggests that the Omicron variant takes as little as three days to incubate, making the app even less efficient in this latest wave, said Moodie, who participated in an independent study of the app earlier this year.

“If you had asked me before Omicron, I would have said, ‘Everyone needs this app actively all the time,’ and I certainly think there’s no harm in having it. But I do not know if it is. just as effective now because of the apparent speed at which Omicron is being transmitted, “she said.

Dr. Erica Moodie, professor of biostatistics at McGill University, said the federal COVID Alert app may be less effective in slowing the spread of COVID-19 in this latest wave of pandemics due to strained test capacity and the shorter incubation period for Omicron variant. (Posted by Erica Moodie)

Provinces across Canada have reported record-breaking daily case numbers in recent weeks, mainly driven by the more transferable Omicron variant.

Some provinces, including Quebec and Nova Scotia, announced that laboratory-based PCR testing will be reserved for selected cases, while others who suspect they have COVID-19 will be asked to use a rapid test at home and isolate if it returns positive.

“So many people do not get the PCR tests, they do quick tests at home, which means you can not get … the activation key,” Moodie said.

Even in provinces like New Brunswick, where everyone still has access to PCR testing, a lag can mean that the wait for a positive result and one-time code for the app may come too late to effectively alert other app users of potential exposure .

“The PCR tests, where it used to take maybe 24 hours to get the results, can take two or three days. And since Omicron is so transferable and possibly incubates a little bit faster, a difference of a few days and a delay in getting that one-time key can make a big difference in terms of transmission. “

Health Canada did not respond to questions from CBC News about the effectiveness of the COVID Alert app at this stage of the pandemic.

CBC News also asked the New Brunswick government if the increase in cases affected its ability to give app users the one-time code, but did not receive a response within the deadline.

According to the Government of Canada, the app has been downloaded 6.7 million times, and a total of 37,312 one-time codes have been given to users across nine provinces, but there is no provincial breakdown.

By April, the Canadian digital service, within the Treasury Board Secretariat, had spent $ 3.5 million on developing, maintaining, testing and securing the app.

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