COVID-19 roundup: Federal government’s exposure-notification app marks 1.1 million downloads

The COVID Alert app is seen on an iPhone in Ottawa, on Friday, July 31, 2020. The Canadian Press/Justin Tang

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It’s day 147 since Canada’s 100th coronavirus case. The number of cases is 117,334 as of publication time, up 215 since yesterday—a 27 per cent decrease from the seven-day prior average of 294 new cases. At its peak on May 3, the seven-day average was 1,603 new cases a day. 

Ontario’s COVID-19 caseload is up to four times higher than the official count, according to an antibody study from the province’s public health agency. 

COVID Alert, the federal exposure notification app, was downloaded 1.1 million times in the four days following its Friday launch, according to the Canadian Digital Service, which developed the app. However, the program doesn’t work on older smartphone devices, which digital rights experts say will limit usage by those particularly vulnerable to the virus.

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The Google-Apple exposure notification API on which the COVID Alert application is built uses Bluetooth to exchange encrypted keys with nearby phones. The API is limited to devices running the iOS 13.5 and Android 6.0 or newer operating systems, which means devices released more than five years ago aren’t compatible. “The older phones can’t support the core functionality, which is being able to use Bluetooth to log proximity,” Health Canada privacy director Andréa Rousseau tweeted on Tuesday, noting that Apple and Google set the system’s limits.

COVID-19 has affected people of colour and low-income people most. New data from Toronto Public Health shows racialized patients accounted for 83 per cent of the cases for which demographic information was collected between May 20 and July 16, despite making up 52 per cent of the municipal population; Black residents faced the most disproportionate impact. More than a quarter of cases in which the agency collected income data were among those with annual household earnings under $30,000, and more than half under $50,000.

Those most vulnerable are also less likely to have the devices necessary to use COVID Alert. More than an eighth of respondents with household incomes under $30,000 in a May survey by Ryerson University’s Cybersecure Policy Exchange said they didn’t own a smartphone. Neither did 20 per cent of those 60 years old and over. “We know that [Black, Indigenous and people of colour] + elderly communities are more likely to be affected by Covid and are less able to purchase newer devices,” tweeted Christopher Parsons, senior research associate at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. “So, those who may find the most utility in covid apps are least likely to have the option to use them.”

Asked about the older-phone issue on Tuesday, federal chief public health officer Theresa Tam deferred questions to Apple and Google. “Despite these gaps, we need to have a go at using it,” she said, adding that COVID Alert is only one measure among several, including traditional contact tracing and businesses maintaining customer lists. Apple and Google did not respond to The Logic’s request for comment by deadline. The former’s developer page says 81 per cent of all devices in use were on at least iOS 13 as of mid-June, while 85 per cent of Android devices were running at least version 6.0 in April. 

Last week, The Logic reported that the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office decided in early June to have a single, national app based on the operating-system makers’ exposure-notification system and code from Shopify. Users of apps that aren’t based on the Apple-Google API, like Alberta’s ABTraceTogether, must keep them open on the screen of iPhones with their devices unlocked. As some digital policy experts point out, no country has yet shown what an effective, widely adopted contact-tracing or exposure-notification app looks like. 

Drinking from the firehose:

  • Newfoundland and Labrador Premier-Designate Andrew Furey is promising to lead the province away from the “well-worn path of boom and bust and back again.” The Conference Board of Canada estimates the economy will contract 4.1 per cent this year due to COVID-19 and oil price declines. 
  • The pandemic stalled growth at Canada’s most promising tech firms, according to an analysis by the Narwhal Project.
  • Canadian consumer confidence is back to neutral for the first time since the pandemic struck, according to one index.
  • Porter Airlines will keep its planes grounded at Toronto’s Billy Bishop Airport until October 7; it was previously scheduled to resume flying on August 31.
  • Gold was worth more than US$2,000 an ounce on Tuesday, the first time it’s hit that price point.
  • Amsterdam-based is laying off up to 4,375 of its 17,000 employees, citing the impact of COVID-19 on the travel industry. 
  • San Francisco-based Le Tote and its subsidiary Lord & Taylor both filed for bankruptcy protection on Sunday. Hudson’s Bay sold the department-store brand and its inventory to the clothing-rental platform for $133 million in August 2019, but retained its real estate holdings. 

Game theory: In the first half of 2020, poachers killed 166 rhinos in South Africa, down from 316 last year. Environment Minister Barbara Creecy cited pandemic-related travel restrictions as one factor.


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