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Alberta on Monday counted 860 new infections.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Alberta’s contact tracing app has been used to track down people who may have been exposed to the coronavirus just 19 times since it launched this spring, revealing another weakness in the province’s strategy to thwart the infection.

Premier Jason Kenney has rejected calls to adopt the federal exposure notification app, insisting the province’s tool is superior because it is folded into Alberta’s contact tracing network. But Alberta’s virus investigators are so overwhelmed by the explosion of COVID-19 that they have stopped contact tracing, save for high-priority cases.

Alberta on Monday counted 860 new infections, bringing the total number of active cases in the province to 10,031. Roughly 7 per cent of COVID-19 tests performed in Alberta are coming back positive.

Mr. Kenney is averse to managing the pandemic through heavy-handed government restrictions, and has been relying on Albertans to take “personal responsibility." He has also touted Alberta’s testing and tracing capabilities as key to the province’s defence system.

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But now contact tracing is mostly up to event organizers and individuals, Alberta Health Services is taking up to a week to contact school superintendents about infectious COVID-19 cases in their facilities and the province insists its app is the best technology available despite how few times it has proved useful.

The app, known as ABTraceTogether, has identified 70 close contacts in 19 of the province’s COVID-19 cases, Alberta Health spokeswoman Zoe Cooper said Monday. This means the app was used to trace contacts in about 0.05 per cent of cases since May, when it launched. The federal app, by way of comparison, has been deployed to warn people of potential exposure to the virus in roughly 5 per cent of COVID-19 cases in Ontario since that province adopted the program at the end of July.

ABTraceTogether’s rate of usefulness is likely below the province’s expectations, according to Christopher Parsons, a researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy’s Citizen Lab in Toronto.

“It’s definitely not great,” he said. “It seems like a pretty low number.”

Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said contact tracers now count about 15 close contacts for every infected individual. This means an additional 15,000 people are considered close contacts each day. Alberta, in early November, stopped contact tracing cases unless an infected person was a minor, health care worker, or lived or worked in a communal setting. This, however, has not alleviated the pressure.

“Those teams are still struggling to get the work done in a timely way,” Dr. Hinshaw said Monday. “There’s still a large, large volume of work.”

Contact tracers will still use ABTraceTogether to suss out close contacts of an infected individual, even if that person is not in a high-priority group. If someone who uses the app tests positive for COVID-19, they can upload the app’s data and tracers, then determine when the person may have been infectious. Tracers then contact other app users who were near the sick individual during that stretch.

Steve Buick, a spokesman for Alberta’s Minister of Health, said the app’s recent improvements will accelerate its usefulness. ABTraceTogether depends on overlap between users and positive COVID-19 cases, and those “naturally” tend to be different groups, he said.

“App users tend to be early adopters and conscientious rule-followers, which means they’re at lower risk; cases tend to be people at higher risk,” he said. “That’s not to say they don’t overlap, just that at the beginning when the numbers are still relatively small, it’s another constraint on the impact of the app.”

Alberta and British Columbia are the only provinces that have rejected COVID Alert, the federal government’s app. COVID Alert cuts out contact tracers, which increases privacy but risks overwhelming the testing and tracing system. If a user tests positive, that person can key in a code and the app will send exposure alerts to phones that were within two metres of the infected person’s device for at least 15 minutes in the previous two weeks.

Ontario adopted the app at the end of July and 54,934 people tested positive for COVID-19 between then and Nov. 15. Of those, 2,833 people entered one-time key codes into the app, meaning it has automatically notified potential close contacts in roughly 5 per cent of cases since it launched. Because of the app’s privacy precautions, it is not known how many notifications have been issued, but Ontario said the app has resulted in 80,000 visits to its COVID-19 exposure website as of Nov. 15.

COVID Alert has been downloaded roughly 5.27 million times as of Nov. 15. Ontario says it believes most of the users are in Canada’s largest province. The app in Alberta, population 4.4 million, had roughly 251,000 registered users in early November.

Experts calculate that controlling COVID-19 requires between 56 per cent and 95 per cent of the population to adopt contact tracing apps and follow public-health guidelines, according to a study published in The Lancet.

Alberta is also struggling to communicate with schools as it deals with the wave of positive cases. Parkview School in Edmonton on Nov. 9 sent children in Grades 7, 8 and 9 home to self-isolate after two people tied to the school tested positive for the virus, for example. Joanne Aldridge, the school’s principal, on Sunday told parents she had still not heard from AHS.

“Without confirmation from AHS I am unable to officially confirm the length of time of the quarantine for our students and staff,” she said in an e-mail obtained by The Globe and Mail.

AHS spokesman Kerry Williamson, without referring specifically to Parkview, said the health authority notifies close contacts in school settings as quickly as possible.

“The steep increase in numbers of cases and outbreaks across the province has stressed the contact tracing resources, resulting in lengthier times between case confirmation and close contact notification," he said. "AHS endeavours to contact superintendents of cases considered infectious while in a school setting within 5-7 days of receiving confirmation of the positive test result.”

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