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Medical staff assess people for COVID-19, as seen through a mesh tarp, at the public Victoria Health Unit in Victoria, B.C., on March 17, 2020.

KEVIN LIGHT/Reuters

As the call volumes to health bodies across the country began to increase earlier this month, Ammneh Azeim, the head of user experience at Alberta Health Services, wondered aloud whether an online self-assessment tool could help manage the deluge of coronavirus inquiries.

She and her team checked around and discovered that the United Kingdom’s National Health Service already had such a tool. But Alberta officials wanted their own program, based on the simple set of assessment questions that provincial health-care workers were asking by phone.

“We just jumped on it,” said Kass Rafih, senior provincial director of innovation and digital solutions for AHS, who said the Alberta tool was developed in about two days.

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The demand for answers on COVID-19 was clear. The self-assessment tool went live just before 5 p.m. Friday. About 24 hours later, it had been used more than 400,000 times. By Tuesday, the number had hit one million.

Most of the users are from Alberta, but other Canadians – and even a small number of people in the United States and further afield – have been using the simple series of online questions about symptoms to determine if they are infected and whether they should seek testing.

Alberta is sharing its coding work with other provinces. Saskatchewan launched its own online assessment Sunday morning, based on the program developed by its next-door neighbour, as has British Columbia.

In the past three days, the AHS has also shared information with health officials in Yukon, Nunavut, Prince Edward Island and Ontario and with the Canadian Armed Forces.

“We have also had inquiries from outside of Canada and we know that other health jurisdictions are looking to use it in other parts of the world,” said Kerry Williamson, executive director of issues management at the AHS.

Alberta’s assessment tool is also receiving favourable comparisons to a U.S. website created by Verily, a life sciences unit of Google’s parent company, Alphabet. That website was promoted by U.S. President Donald Trump last week.

However, a New York Times article on Monday noted that Alberta’s assessment tool doesn’t require a sign-in, thereby encouraging greater participation.

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That was done intentionally, Mr. Rafih said. “We just wanted it to be as simple as possible."

Reaction to the assessment tool on social media has been huge, he said. “We’re hearing back from people saying, ‘Hey, thanks for providing a simple way to assure us. I’m going to sleep better tonight.’”

The AHS is working to improve the tool. In the days ahead, it hopes to introduce a referral form feature for Albertans with COVID-19 symptoms. The form will be automatically sent to the province’s assessment and zone operation centres.

The technology is already in place, Mr. Rafih said. All that’s needed is to ensure that staff are ready for that influx.

“Just operationally, we have to figure out how it will help our front-line staff,” he added. “We don’t want to introduce something and create a little bit of chaos.”

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