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More users needed: Lessons from Alberta's coronavirus contact tracing app –



Alberta’s use of a smartphone app to help slow the spread of the coronavirus may provide other provinces with insight on what to do — and what to avoid — as Canada begins easing restrictions, heightening the need for effective contact tracing.

ABTraceTogether, launched late last week, is the first such app released by a provincial public health authority. An accompanying instructional video explains: “The more people who use the app, the safer everyone will be.”

Early uptake figures and a key design quirk, however, illustrate how challenging it will be to ensure widespread adoption and efficacy in Alberta and elsewhere.

Contact tracing is the practice of identifying and notifying people at risk of contracting the virus from someone known to have been infected. Anyone who came in close contact with that person is instructed to self-isolate to avoid spreading the virus further.

So far, tracing in Canada has been done manually, with public health staff or volunteers getting in touch with each patient’s recent contacts one by one. An app can speed up that process, and doesn’t require users to remember where they’ve been or, just as importantly, with whom.

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“If there’s some way technology can help… we all want to get out of our houses,” said Richard Lachman, a digital technology and culture researcher at Ryerson University in Toronto. But he warned against treating the software as a “panacea.”

Alberta’s app employs Bluetooth technology to determine with whom a user has spent time (at least 15 minutes in a 24-hour period). But it only works if everyone involved has the app running on their phone and Bluetooth enabled.

Early hurdles

As of Tuesday, ABTraceTogether had been downloaded just over 120,000 times, Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan told CBC News. If each download accounts for a new user, that makes up less than three per cent of the province’s population of around 4.4 million.

A group of British researchers suggested a similar app would only be effective if it were adopted by 56 per cent of the U.K.’s population.

McMillan declined to provide a target figure for Alberta, but said in an email, “Our goal is for as many Albertans to use it as possible.”

Even users who’ve installed the app may have trouble using it effectively. Those running Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS, are advised upon installation to “place your phone upside down or screen side down in your pocket” to keep their screen unlocked while out running essential errands.

An FAQ explains ABTraceTogether doesn’t work properly when running in the background. In other words, it can’t guarantee contact tracing continues while a user opens an email or replies to a text message. “If you need to use other apps, just remember to switch back” afterward, the FAQ states.

Apple teamed up with rival Google to develop contact tracing technology. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Alberta’s health minister, Tyler Shandro, said Apple has been made aware of the issue.

“We’re looking forward to the fix being able to make its way to the App Store as soon as possible,” he said.

App developers are hopeful a rare joint project by Apple and Google will eventually allow them to streamline apps across iOS and Android devices, letting contact tracing run in the background and making the services more widely available.

How it works

While some previous contact tracing apps relied on GPS data, tracking a user’s every movement, the Bluetooth method is emerging as a more accessible and less intrusive alternative.

James Petrie, a member of an international team developing a similar app called Covid Watch, said earlier iterations of the software focused on GPS tracking, but, “We hit a number of challenges — like how do you share this data between people without identifying them?”

A PhD candidate in applied mathematics at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Petrie said Bluetooth provides more promise because of its ubiquity among smartphones and its ability for direct communication from one device to another.

That’s how ABTraceTogether works. It was developed using the same code that formed the basis of Singapore’s groundbreaking TraceTogether app. Deloitte and IBM were hired to tweak and rebrand the app for Alberta.

The software exchanges anonymous data with another user’s device when it’s located less than two metres away for several minutes. If someone with the app is diagnosed with COVID-19, they will be asked to consent for other users to be alerted and the information given to manual contact tracers, but the patient would remain anonymous. 


“Users will merely be informed that they have come into close contact with someone who has tested positive,” said Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health. 

Unveiling the app last Friday, she took great pains to underscore its privacy features, such as how data remains encrypted on a user’s phone and is only saved for 21 days.

“The use of technology for this purpose may seem intrusive, but downloading the app is completely voluntary and data will not be accessed unless a user provides consent to share their data with [Alberta Health Services],” she said.

Other provinces

Some other provinces have acknowledged they’re considering how to implement digital contact tracing.

A New Brunswick government spokesperson said on Tuesday the province plans to implement an “anonymous privacy-by-design solution” using Bluetooth. Last week, New Brunswick’s privacy commissioner said he expected Premier Blaine Higgs and others to be shown a demonstration of the app within 10 days.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s top public health doctor, said ABTraceTogether would log interactions between users when they were located less than two metres apart for a period of at least 15 minutes within 24 hours. (Art Raham/CBC)

Newfoundland and Labrador Health Minister John Haggie said earlier this week his province would ensure privacy is respected by seeking advice from experts on the topic.

British Columbia, however, is “not focusing on tracing apps such as these at this time,” according to the Health Ministry.

The patchwork of plans leaves open the possibility that contact tracing apps will be incompatible from one jurisdiction to another, as interprovincial travel slowly resumes.

“It works really well if a lot of people can communicate with the same system,” said Petrie, “so I’m hoping for Canada to see a national app, or at least to have provincial apps that can communicate, but I think that’s still a few weeks or months out.”

Contact tracing app TraceTogether was released by the Singapore government to curb the spread of the coronavirus. (Edgar Su/Reuters)

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has called for a national contact tracing strategy. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, however, said on Radio-Canada talk show Tout le monde en parle he hasn’t seen the right technology “so far.”

Richard Lachman, an associate professor at Ryerson’s RTA School of Media, pointed out, smartphone apps should only be seen as part of the solution to the ongoing crisis, along with other measures such adequate testing, physical distancing and widespread hand-washing.

“There are much bigger questions that will be required,” he said, “and I don’t want us to get distracted.”

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Nova Scotia court ruling orders province to better protect endangered species – CTV News



The Nova Scotia government has failed to meet “certain statutory duties” to protect species at risk says a Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge, who also ordered the province’s minister of lands and forestry to fulfil his obligations under the Endangered Species Act.

In a ruling issued Friday, Justice Christa Brothers says the public record has shown a “chronic and systemic failure” to implement action required under the act.

“The minister and the department must uphold the law, all the more so when their duties are as plain as they are in this case,” Brothers wrote. “If they conduct themselves unlawfully without good reason, the court must hold them to account.”

The judge quoted from the 1971 Dr. Seuss book “The Lorax” in the preamble to her 58-page ruling: “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Brothers also cited a 2016 report by the provincial auditor general that criticized department inaction, a followup report by the department on the auditor’s recommendations in 2018, and the 2018 Lahey Report on forestry practices to back her conclusion.

The ruling is the result of a judicial review application by the Federation of Nova Scotia Naturalists, the Blomidon Naturalists Society, the Halifax Field Naturalists and wildlife biologist Bob Bancroft that was heard last fall.

The groups argued that Lands and Forestry Minister Iain Rankin has failed to meet requirements under the act, including requirements to devise and implement recovery plans for species at risk, create recovery teams and identify core habitats.

They cited six animal and plant species as examples — the mainland moose, Canada warbler, eastern wood pewee, wood turtle, ram’s head lady’s slipper and black ash.

“Nature won,” Bancroft said of the court ruling in an interview Monday. “The question is whether they (politicians) will actually do anything or not.”

Bancroft said he believes nature has been compromised over the years on many fronts because of an “industrial agenda” within the department, particularly when it comes to forestry practices.

“At least we got to the bottom of the species at risk issue effectively in law, so I’m grateful to the lawyers and Judge Brothers for that.”

Brothers noted that in the case of the Canada warbler, which was listed as endangered in 2013, the minister had one year to appoint a recovery team under the act.

But she said a team wasn’t appointed until March 2019, shortly after the naturalist groups filed for judicial review and “some five years after the time frame contemplated by the Endangered Species Act.”

Brothers said little action also occurred when it came to the ram’s head lady’s slipper, a plant listed as endangered in 2007.

“The minister neither appointed a recovery team nor prepared a plan in 2008,” she wrote. “According to the record, a draft recovery plan was created in 2009. There is nothing in either the record or submissions to explain why this plan was never finalized.”

Brothers said a plants recovery team was appointed in May 2019 that included the lady slipper and a recovery plan is pending.

“What of the 11 years that elapsed between the designation of the species and the appointment of the team?” the ruling asks.

The judge also said lawyers for the province had cited “several somewhat vague suggestions” of limited departmental resources as justification for the delay.

“There is no apparent support in the record for the claim that institutional restraints, such as lack of resources, are at fault for this failure to observe statutory requirements,” she said.

During two days of hearings last September the lawyer for the naturalist groups, James Simpson, argued that the language in the act, with its use of the word “shall”, creates an imperative for the department to enforce the existing law.

Brothers agreed in her ruling. “The minister has no discretion to avoid this duty,” she wrote.

In an email, Lands and Forestry Department spokeswoman Lisa Jarrett said there’s no word yet on a potential appeal of the ruling.

“The province has just received the ruling and is currently reviewing it to determine next steps,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 1, 2020.

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Nova Scotia researchers to evaluate treatments for moderate, severe COVID-19 – The Telegram



A Nova Scotia study will look into the effectiveness of treatments for hospital patients suffering from moderate to severe COVID-19. 

The study, called CO-VIC for COVID victory, will involve about 600 patients from Nova Scotia Health Authority sites across the province, an NSHA news release said Monday. 

The study, which the authority is doing in conjunction with Dalhousie University, will test out potential therapies and their impact on COVID-19 symptoms. 

“When additional cutting-edge therapies become available, they will also be assessed,” the release said. “Personalized measurements of immune response will help develop future therapies and predict when and how severe COVID-19 happens.”

The work, which is being led by infectious disease clinician and researcher Dr. Lisa Barrett, aims to advance our understanding of how the immune system responds to COVID and help develop future treatments and second-wave vaccines.

 “We need the best knowledge of treatments and immunity, to save lives now and in the future as we continue to fight COVID-19.”

– CO-VIC study leader Dr. Lisa Barrett

CO-VIC is partially funded by the Nova Scotia COVID-19 Health Research Coalition.

 “As COVID-19 related deaths increase in the older population, in the young who didn’t ever expect to be ill, and in health care workers, our research community feels the overwhelming urgency to protect Nova Scotians with research that tests treatments, predicts disease, and promotes understanding of immunity,” Barrett said in the release.

 “We need the best knowledge of treatments and immunity, to save lives now and in the future as we continue to fight COVID-19.”

The NSHA called the treatment study an integral part of Nova Scotia’s pandemic response. Compared with other provinces, Nova Scotia’s population includes a high proportion of vulnerable people who are older, have underlying respiratory conditions or are immunosuppressed.

“These are all people at higher risk of severe COVID-19 disease and this work may aid in protecting our population.”

Most Nova Scotians will be eligible to take part at hospitals outside traditional research facilities to ensure fair access to research and potential therapies, the release said. 

“While data will be gathered from Nova Scotians, for Nova Scotians, the study is designed to mirror larger international trials to promote the comparison of global data. This will allow the research team to leverage international information so it can be applied here in Nova Scotia.”

For more information, visit the study website


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Nova Scotia reports one new case of COVID-19, bringing total to 1057 – Winnipeg Free Press



HALIFAX – Nova Scotia is reporting one new case of COVID-19 bringing the total number of confirmed cases in the province to 1,057.

Health officials say there is one long-term care home in the province with active cases of the virus.

Northwood in Halifax currently has 10 residents and four staff active cases.

Six people are currently in hospital, with two of those patients in intensive care.

To date, Nova Scotia has registered 42,426 negative test results and 60 deaths.

Officials say 984 people have now recovered from the illness.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 1, 2020.

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