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COVID-19 roundup: Ontario delays its virus exposure-notification app launch

The new exposure notification app, backed by the federal and Ontario governments.
The new exposure notification app, backed by the federal and Ontario governments. Government of Ontario
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It’s day 114 since Canada’s 100th coronavirus case. The number of cases is 104,653 as of publication time, up 233 since yesterday—a 25 per cent decrease from the seven-day prior average of 311 new cases. At its peak on May 3, the seven-day average was 1,603 new cases a day. 

The World Health Organization warned the Middle East is at a “critical threshold,” with more than a million cases recorded across 22 countries.

Postponed: The launch of COVID Alert, the exposure-notification smartphone app that was scheduled to roll out in Ontario today, has been delayed. The app, which uses a Bluetooth-based, decentralized system developed by Google and Apple, is a collaborative effort between the Canadian Digital Service and the Ontario Digital Service, with input from Shopify and BlackBerry.

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“The launch date was delayed because the federal government wanted the app to launch … with a federal server for the app rather than a provincial server and internal processes and approvals on the federal side required additional time,” said an Ontario government official whom The Logic agreed not to name because they were not authorized to speak publicly. “Otherwise the plan is exactly the same – COVID Alert will be Canada’s exposure-notification app and the Ontario government is working with the federal government to launch it in Ontario first.”

In his daily press conference, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said the delay was due to the federal government’s efforts in getting all provinces on board. “We’re ready to go,” he said. “The feds want to bring it right across the country; they’re working on that. But Ontario is ready. We’ll wait for the feds to launch this, and we support them.” The province did not name a new launch date.

A federal official told The Logic the government was working on ensuring the app would be “fully functional and secure when [it’s] rolled out. That’s why we are taking the time to do due diligence on the app.”

Meanwhile, the Ontario government is also exploring the use of another application designed to prevent the spread of the virus—though this one does so without the use of a smartphone. Designed by Toronto-based Facedrive, TraceScan “uses short-distance Bluetooth signal interactions, affordable Bluetooth wearable technology and machine-learning algorithms” to forecast new outbreaks. “We are interested in learning more about this initiative because it could potentially fill gaps that our exposure-notification app cannot. For example: some jobs in Ontario, like construction, are not allowed to use cell phones on the job,” another government source told The Logic

Ontario Labour Minister Monte McNaughton was recently given “a detailed briefing” on how such wearable contact-tracing technology can improve worker health and safety, according to press secretary Bradley Metlin. “At this time we have not approved the use of this technology but we are interested in learning more about this solution as they engage the federal government on their next steps,” Metlin said.

In the markets: Global stocks continued to rally Thursday, with all major indices closing the day with gains. The activity followed new government data showing the U.S. economy added 4.8 million new jobs in June, with unemployment dropping to 11.1 per cent, down from 13.3 per cent in May. Some analysts are also predicting corporate earnings for S&P 500 companies will surpass pre-COVID-19 levels by late 2021. Other economists, meanwhile, warn of a rockier recovery, including a wave of “substantial bankruptcies” that could trigger a deeper economic crisis. 

The trade deficit narrowed in Canada, where the loonie hovered around 73.7 cents U.S., amid 6.7 per cent growth in exports in May—thanks largely to resuming production in the auto industry and higher oil prices—following historic April declines. Imports, however, dropped 3.9 per cent. Despite the incremental improvements, the S&P Global Ratings revised its economic outlook for Canada, predicting a larger contraction this year than it anticipated in April—from 5.3 per cent to 5.9 per cent. Next year’s forecast is slightly worse, as well, from predicting six per cent growth in April to 5.4 cent cent now.

“We are not burned out because life is hard this year. We are burned out because we are being rolled over by the wheels of an economy that has bafflingly declared working parents inessential”: Deb Perelman, creator of the food blog Smitten Kitchen, made the case for U.S. schools to reopen in the fall. “In the COVID-19 economy, you’re allowed only a kid or a job,” she wrote.

Cross-country checkup: Ottawa has extended the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance program through July; it gives landlords forgivable loans if they agree to reduce tenants’ rent by 75 per cent. Manitoba is forecasted to have the best economic recovery from the pandemic compared to other Canadian provinces, with inflation-adjusted GDP set to fall by 3.8 per cent in 2020, according to RBC. The Toronto Transit Commission, Canada’s biggest transit authority, launched its latest phase of its recovery plan on Thursday. Riders are now required to wear masks and are subject to a $195 fine for not complying with the rule. The TTC is also loosening physical-distancing rules in a bid to increase ridership. Saskatchewan has ended its daily COVID-19 update, joining B.C., Alberta and Manitoba in weekday reporting only. Nova Scotia is dealing with a new COVID-19 outbreak, after three weeks virus-free, with cases affecting a migrant farm worker and one suspected case linked to a flight from Toronto to Halifax. Nunavut reported a presumptive case of COVID-19 at a mine southwest of Pond Inlet; if confirmed it would be the first case in the territory. 

Postcard from Vancouver: Shawn Williamson has a six-inch stack of papers on his desk detailing how to shoot film and T.V. in the time of COVID-19. The B.C. government gave the industry the green light to return to set during its latest phase of its reopening, but navigating how to do so safely is still a major challenge for studios. “It’s a confusing time; everything is up in the air,” said Williamson, chairman of Brightlight Pictures, the production house behind shows like “The Good Doctor” and Amazon Prime Video’s “Upload.”

While some of Brightlight’s smaller productions are preparing to resume imminently, its bigger shows are still on hold. “We’re still waiting to see how the government regulations are going to work,” he told The Logic. “We’ve got the ability to do testing onsite, and we’ve got incredibly complex and detailed [COVID-19] safety plans with every studio we’re working with,” including set designs that allow for more airflow, and remote viewing setups for crew to distance them from the cast as much as possible. “But the big question is quarantine,” said Williamson. 

The studio has pushed the federal government for an exception to the 14-day mandatory isolation period for travellers entering the province from outside Canada—so far, they haven’t had any luck. “In a typical episodic show, you might get a script 10 days before you go to camera—maybe two weeks—which means you go through the casting process, pick who you’re going to pick and by the time they’ve cleared quarantine, you would have completed the episode.”  

The challenge could be to the benefit of local actors—at least for those going for smaller roles or in more established shows. “The larger shows, and newer series—because they’re still finding their voice and want every opportunity to succeed—if they find the perfect person somewhere else, they really wouldn’t want the government regulations to dictate who they end up casting.” 

The results are in: The majority of The Logic’s subscribers who responded to our latest survey say they have applied for government COVID-19 assistance. The Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy has seen the greatest uptake: almost half of all respondents said they’ve applied. Many subscribers were pleased with the support Ottawa has provided, although some programs, including the federal commercial rent subsidy, have been harder to access. “While not perfect, perfect should not be an enemy of good,” one subscriber wrote.

In the lab: The University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization—International Vaccine Centre was working on a vaccine for COVID-19 before it had a name. Their vaccine has shown to be effective in ferrets and is now being tested in hamsters, as the centre aims in the long run to become “Canada’s pandemic centre” that can develop vaccines for pathogens before they show up in humans. The European Commission is in talks with Gilead Sciences to reserve doses of its drug remdesivir, while Indonesia is producing its own vaccine amid anxieties that emerging economies will have trouble accessing supplies.

Meanwhile, a potential COVID-19 vaccine developed by German biotech firm BioNTech and U.S. pharmaceutical company Pfizer has shown promising immune responses in 45 healthy volunteers. Pfizer is using the same technique as Moderna, whose 30,000-person trial has reportedly been delayed; it was meant to start next week. Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted Thursday that his company is working with German biotech company CureVac to build “RNA microfactories,” a manufacturing unit that can print genetic material for CureVac’s potential COVID-19 vaccine. Musk called the partnership a “side project” for Tesla.

Drinking from the firehose: 

  • Zoom said it has missed its deadline in sharing its first transparency report, which was expected to include the number of requests it has received for user data from governments, according to a blog post by CEO Eric Yuan tracking the progress of its 90-day feature freeze to address privacy and security concerns. A new date has not been set for its release.
  • Walmart is converting 160 of its U.S. parking lots into drive-in movie theatres starting in August, as cinemas in the U.S. remain closed because of the pandemic.  
  • An analysis by Media Matters found particularly high engagement on Facebook posts promoting skepticism about wearing masks. “Right-leaning” posts about masks observed over a month each received an average 2,700 interactions. 
  • Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has regained the wealth he gave up in his divorce; he’s now worth almost US$172 billion, richer than he was before the pandemic and a record for the world’s richest person. 
  • Tesla second-quarter vehicle deliveries dropped 4.9 per cent year over year, beating Wall Street expectations for the second quarter in a row, despite the economic slowdown and factory closure. 
  • A new study suggests people are hoarding cash, with an increase in bills in circulation as well as digital transactions around the world during the pandemic. 

Around the world: Cases in Tokyo hit a two-month high, suggesting an incoming second wave, which will be managed by a new set of government-appointed experts. Israel will impose targeted lockdowns in neighbourhoods with spikes in infections. The Palestinian Authority announced a five-day lockdown across the West Bank after infections more than doubled. More than 12,000 people in the U.K. are expected to lose their jobs after several firms announced layoffs in the past three days. Students in Britain will be expected to attend school under a bubble system come September, with the government threatening fines for non-attendance.

This post has been updated with comment from the federal government on the exposure-notification app’s rollout.

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U.S. daily coronavirus cases topped 50,000 for the first time yesterday, with that number expected to potentially double. More than half of U.S. states have reversed or halted their reopening plans. Some jurisdictions are turning to stricter measures: police in Rockland Country, N.Y. are using subpoenas to force people to cooperate with contact-tracing efforts. According to New Yorkers, the power lunch may be over

“Hug curtains”: From Brazil to Belgium, the plastic barriers are being set up in long-term care homes so senior citizens can embrace their loved ones while staying protected from the spread of COVID-19.

* We’re emphasizing new cases, rather than running totals, because “flattening the curve” is when each day’s new cases are fewer than those of the previous day. The percentage increase is determined based on how today’s cases compare to a rolling seven-day prior average.

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