Ottawa pursuing technological approaches to COVID-19 contact tracing

Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains says the federal government is still trying to work out how Canada can use technology to fight COVID-19 through contact tracing — the critical public health measure of tracking people who may have been exposed to the virus.

The practice involves finding those who have come in contact with individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 and alerting them of the potential need for testing or self-isolation.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, has called testing and contact tracing two key measures that need to be up and running before physical distancing restrictions can be eased.

WATCH | Bains on tech for contact tracing

Innovation, Science and Industry Minister Navdeep Bains said “all options are on the table” when asked about the possible use of technology for contact tracing to contain the pandemic. 1:06

“As we get this first wave under control, the absolute key is to have sensitive systems to detect any new cases and then to do rigorous contact tracing around those cases,” she said during a news conference last week.

However, contact tracing can be labour intensive as volunteers try to find out whether a patient, for example, visited a grocery store or took public transit before they knew they were positive.

Which is why some countries are looking for digital solutions. 

“All options are on the table. We’re going to deploy all the tools that we need to make sure we protect Canadians’ health and well being,” said Bains during a press conference today.

“It’s still early stages and we’ve engaged with a robust group of people across the country that are working on some early stage technology projects. But we haven’t made any final determinations in terms of what we want to support and move forward with.”

Privacy commissioner releases guidelines

Singapore has seen success with its “Trace Together” app and both the Australian and German governments plan on launching similar tools in the coming weeks.

Apple and Google are teaming up on a contact-tracing app which would use a new software on both iPhones and Android phones to make it easier to use Bluetooth wireless technology to track down people who may have been infected with the virus.

Bains’s office didn’t respond to a request about whether Canada is talking to the two tech giants about their software, but the minister said the Canadian government is looking at what other countries are doing to deploy technology in contact tracing.

“We’re looking at other jurisdictions. We want to make sure that if we are moving forward in that area that we also deal with issues with respect to privacy in a meaningful way,” he said. 

WATCH | The public health detectives working to stop the spread of COVID-19

Canada is calling for more people to help investigate coronavirus cases. 2:33

Privacy activists around the world have called for a balance between civil liberties and public welfare, warning that tracking apps need to designed so that governments cannot abuse them.

Earlier today, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada released a guide for government institutions to follow while responding to the COVID-19 crisis.

“The urgency of limiting the spread of the virus is understandably a significant challenge for government and public health authorities, who are looking for ways to leverage personal information and ‘Big Data’ to contain and gain insights about the novel virus and the global threat it presents,” says the document.

“We may see more extraordinary and less voluntary measures being contemplated, and some of these measures will have significant implications for privacy and civil liberties.”

The federal commissioner’s office said any initiatives in this space need to be science-based, have a clear legal basis and use aggregate (or non-identifiable) data whenever possible.

Personal information must be used to protect public health and for no other purpose, and data collected during this period should be destroyed when the crisis ends, says the document.

While Bains’ department decides whether to use such technology to track the virus, Health Canada says it’s helping the provinces bolster their contact-tracing programs.

The department put out a call earlier this month for volunteers and as of Friday 36,000 Canadians had registered, said department spokesperson Natalie Mohamed.

Health Canada also has reached out to federal public servants in non-essential jobs and has asked for volunteers through various faculties of health, public health and science across the country. They plan on putting a call out to associations representing health professionals and health science associations for retirees, said Mohamed.

“The government of Canada is reaching out for surge capacity in stages,” she said.

“The skills required include case management, data collection and management, public outreach and telephone interview skills. As needs evolve, support in other areas requiring assistance will be provided. “

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