Dr. James Clem from the Alpine Medical Clinic in Banff joined me this morning to talk about the ABTraceTogether contact tracing app, sharing details on its importance and addressing privacy and technical concerns.


Rob: What exactly does this app do?

Dr. Clem: The app runs on most mobile platforms. It uses your Bluetooth to create a Bluetooth barrier around you of about two meters, which is the number that you keep hearing in terms of social distancing. There was a recent article in The Atlantic about why South Korea has done so well in terms of controlling the virus, and one of the cited reason is how well they’ve been able to do contact tracing.

Let’s imagine there’s two people that are both running the app together and you come in contact within two meters of that person. Your Bluetooth kind of shakes hands with their Bluetooth using a completely anonymous ID number and it registers that interaction. It also registers how long the interaction occurred for. If one of those individuals later goes on to develop COVID, public health will ask for the consent of that person to upload the data from that app. What that does is then allows public health to look at who that person has interacted with within a specified time period. So what this app does is it really improves the efficiency of contact tracing which is, by far, one of the most important pillars of our public health response to COVID-19.  The data still is within users control in terms of access to public health. There’s no GPS component. There’s no geographic stamp that goes along with that interaction.

Rob:  I think that’s something that people are concerned about. We have an app that’s essentially tracking the people we’re interacting with, sending that information to a government agency. Are there any privacy concerns people should be aware of?

Dr. Clem: I know that privacy has been one of the paramount pieces that public health has been working on because they want to reduce any friction for uptake. There are a couple of things that are important. Number one, all of the data is encrypted. Number two, you have to provide consent for that data to be used by public health if you’re identified as COVID positive. The third piece is after 21 days, all of that data is destroyed. The fourth piece is, I think some people have maybe a misperception that this data is held by Alberta Health, which is the Ministry of Health with the Alberta government, and that’s not the case. It is outside of their purview. It’s held by Alberta Health Services. Those are two different entities.

I think to also give it some context. When you do a Google maps search or you’re on Facebook and you’re looking at Karen’s funny cat video, the amount of data that’s actually compiled and used from those interactions is much, much more significant than the data the ABTraceTogether app is using. So when you compare it to your everyday interactions with your mobile apps compared to what the power of this app can do for public health and the good of Albertans in general, the benefits outweigh any of the perceived risks in terms of privacy.

Rob: Let’s say someone gets diagnosed with COVID-19. They have the contact tracing app, they upload their information. Does public health then contact people who that person has been in contact with over the last couple of weeks to let them know, hey, you’ve connected with somebody who had COVID-19. You should get tested?

Dr. Clem: That’s exactly the purpose when the app is running. It needs to be those interactions where you’re within two meters for approximately 15 minutes, which signifies that there’s a high enough risk that they may have potentially transmitted the virus. Then those people are contacted and advised of this interaction so their alarm system is up in order to seek treatment as soon as they start to have any symptoms; self-isolate before they then pass that on to a larger group of people.

Rob: I’m a big fan of this idea. I agree that the privacy concerns are very minimal with this one. I guess the biggest friction point for me personally is the fact that I own an iPhone. Currently with this ABTraceTogether app, you have to run it in the foreground when you’re out and about. It has to be open on your phone all the time, draining your battery. You can’t be using any other apps. Is there a fix coming for this?

Dr. Clem: The best way to describe that is a technical glitch in terms of the way that the app was developed. Public health is in consultation with Apple to fix that in the sense that in the next couple of weeks it will be modified so that it can work similar to the Google Android where it’s working in the background.

For people that are using that app on their iPhone right now, there are some recommendations about putting it screen down in your pocket as well as bringing a charger with you if you’re going out fairly often. I think that with a little bit of forethought, overcoming some of those barriers in the short term until the glitch is fixed is going to be possible. But there will be a fix coming from Apple in the near future to help ameliorate that issue.

Rob: That’s good to hear, because it sounds like for this kind of app to work properly, there really needs to be a fairly large buy in from the population.

Dr. Clem: You’re absolutely right. If we’re able to get adoption above 50%, with a goal of 80% of Albertans using this app, the precision and efficiency that we will be able to exert when we are contact tracing will smooth the path to what all of us would like to get back to, which is life as we kind of remember it before COVID. And the quickest way to do that is to be using this app as one of many other pillars.

I think we need extensive testing and we also need the extra rigor from citizens as well as the healthcare system in terms of social distancing, hand washing, face covering. As well as presenting as soon as people have any symptoms so that they can seek treatment as well as diagnostic clarity. Some of those things we’re working on. We’re trying to expand testing in the province. I’ve seen, at least here in the Bow Valley, that people are taking a lot of the social distancing seriously. So two of those pillars I think we’re doing quite well at. The third one, with the tools that we have, we’re doing quite well at with contact tracing. This is just a better tool to to do that with much more efficiency.

Filed under: Banff, Canmore, covid-19