Health Canada Decommissions COVID Alert App

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OTTAWA — On June 17, Health Canada decommissioned its COVID Alert app, which was designed to help limit the spread of COVID-19. The app has been disabled, and the government has announced that users can remove the app from their devices. The decommissioning of the app is another indication that the Canadian government is relaxing its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Health Canada launched the app in July 2020 — after weeks of delay — as a national exposure notification tool. More than 6.9 million people living in Canada downloaded the app, but only 57,000 users who tested positive for COVID-19 uploaded their test results. The idea was that people who tested positive for COVID-19 would notify others of possible exposure. The app was designed to notify a user if someone they had been in contact with over the past 2 weeks had tested positive.

In a statement, Health Canada said, “While the pandemic is not over, the decision to decommission COVID Alert comes after careful consideration following discussions with provinces and territories on the ongoing evolution of public health programming that varies in each jurisdiction.”

The agency also noted that as polymerase chain reaction testing across Canada declined over the past few months, the app was issuing fewer one-time keys, so users were getting fewer notifications of potential exposures. The one-time key is a unique code that activates the app’s notification function and alerts people who may have been in close contact with someone who tested positive. A few months after the app was introduced, CTV News reported that some users weren’t getting their one-time keys after they entered their test results.

The office of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the launching of COVID Alert. In contrast, the decommissioning of the app was announced in a statement from Health Canada.

New Subvariants Emerging

The decommissioning of the app takes place as indicators are pointing to a potential uptick in COVID-19 activity, Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam, MD, said in a press briefing on June 17. “With the first day of summer just a few days away, steady improvements in the epidemiological indicators are welcome and positive news, and they are supportive of the continued relaxation and pausing of measures,” said Tam.

Dr Theresa Tam

“While we are cautiously optimistic about the current trajectory, we are observing early signals of increased activities in some areas. As well, there are signs of growth in several emergency Omicron subgroup lineages, including BA2.12.1, BA.4, and BA.5, which have demonstrated a growth advantage in additional immune escape over BA.1 and BA2.”

The latter two lineages are the original Omicron variants. BA.2.12.1 has become a dominant variant in recent weeks. The prevalence of BA.4 and BA.5 — newer Omicron subvariants — has increased in recent weeks, according to Health Canada data. The same data show that weekly new cases are trending downward from an uptick in early April. As of June 17, there have been 3.9 million COVID-19 cases and 41,363 deaths in Canada since the start of the pandemic.

Tam said that she wasn’t involved in the decision to decommission the COVID Alert app.

“I think it is important with such a massive public health challenge that innovations take place,” she said. “Not all innovations might work in the front populations, but I think it is good that there was a good go at trying to utilize another tool in the current era of apps to try and protect the population.”

Tam added, “I’m sure there will be lessons learned, because it would be nice to use some of these newer technologies as part of our ongoing management of outbreaks and pandemics.”

Restrictions Easing

Canada, like the United States, has taken steps to roll back restrictions. The government recently suspended mandatory random COVID-19 testing at airports. On June 20, the government suspended the vaccination requirement for domestic travel. It has also lifted the vaccine mandate for federally regulated workers, such as airline employees. Travelers entering the country must still have proof of vaccination.

“We do not expect our program to be linear,” Tam said of the government’s approach to COVID-19.

Dr Dan Gregson

“There will be another wave,” said Dan Gregson, MD, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Calgary Cumming School of Medicine in Alberta. “I don’t know when that’s going to happen in Canada, but you’re probably going to see another bump as these new variants emerge.”

He said the public should be prepared that “nonpharmaceutical interventions” — such as mask-wearing and social distancing — may be implemented once again if the risk of a new wave of infections becomes high.

Richard Mark Kirkner is a Philadelphia-based medical journalist.

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