EDMONTON — Alberta is launching a voluntary mobile app to expand contact tracing for COVID-19 to help reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus.
It's believed to be the first of its kind in North America and is based on similar apps in Singapore, South Korea and Australia.
"You only need to download the app and provide your mobile phone number to register," Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, said Friday.
The app tracing builds on current manual tracing, and Hinshaw said these measures alongside increased testing are critical to prevent COVID-19 cases from escalating.
"The faster Alberta Health Services contact tracers can inform exposed people or close contacts, the quicker we will be able to prevent potential outbreaks and identify when Albertans must self-isolate," said Hinshaw.
The ABTraceTogether app uses Bluetooth to identify any other nearby phones that have the same app.
It records information when two such phones get within two metres of each other for an overall total of 15 minutes within a 24-hour period.
Anyone with the app who later contracts COVID-19 will be asked to upload the data to Alberta Health Services, which will then use it to reach out to those who came in contact with the infected person.
The government said no identifiable information is exchanged between users.
"User identities will not be shared," said Hinshaw.
"Users will merely be informed they have come into close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19."
The data is encrypted on the phone, and after three weeks each day's worth of data drops off one day at a time.
Officials said they are working closely with Alberta's information and privacy commissioner and that no geo-location data will be collected.
The plan is not mandatory; users can opt in or out.
Alberta says it has been among the global leaders in per capita testing. There have been 145,420 people checked for the virus.
Also on Friday, Hinshaw announced 218 new cases of COVID, bringing the total to 5,573. Of those, 2,359 have recovered.
Three more people died, bringing that total to 92. There are 86 people in hospital with COVID-19, 22 of them in intensive care.
Premier Jason Kenney has said that while case counts continue to grow, Alberta is flattening the curve on infections and can begin to gradually reopen.
Golf courses are to open Saturday and other health services such as dentists, dieticians and physiotherapists are to resume on Monday.
Hinshaw said the Monday date is flexible, given that those health practitioners must first put in place COVID-19 safety rules as directed by their professional organizations.
"May 4 should not be taken as the date when every single health practice across the province will open its doors and go back to practising as usual," she said.
If case counts and hospitalizations remain stable, a more widespread reopening is set for May 14.
At that time, retailers, museums and art galleries, daycares, hairstylists and barber shops are to be allowed to open, but public gatherings will still be restricted to no more than 15 people.
Arenas, gyms, pools, movie theatres and nightclubs would open down the road, depending on case counts and hospitalizations.
Kenney said school classes probably won't resume for the rest of this academic year.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 1, 2020
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press