You glance at your phone and there’s a notification that you’ve never seen before. The message reads: “you’ve been exposed in the last 14 days”.
It’s from the COVID Alert app—those who have installed it on their phone are notified if someone they’ve been near (within six feet for longer than 15 minutes) in the previous two weeks tests positive for COVID-19.
With hope that the masks people have been wearing in the community have done their job, you click on the button that reads “Find out what to do next” and then call the Muskoka Assessment Centre line to book an appointment for a COVID-19 test.
With the Huntsville assessment centre closed as of August 28—a decision Huntsville councillors are not happy about—that now requires an appointment at the Bracebridge assessment centre located at the South Muskoka hospital site. Some community members have experienced delays in booking their appointments, and although the Muskoka Paramedic Service has said it plans to continue their periodic drive-through test locations into the fall, no dates for September have been released for that option yet.
The test—a swab taken from the back of your throat with a long brush inserted in your nostril—’feels a bit like you’ve gotten water in your nose while swimming’, you may be told.
And then the wait for the result begins—it will take between two to 10 days for the lab to process your sample and post the result online, where you can access it with your health card. The Ontario Health website says “results can take up to 4 days.” You hope for that rather than 10.
In the meantime, you self-isolate at home, even though you (hopefully) have no symptoms. If you are among those who had been able to go back to work, you notify your employer and resume working from home if you can. You miss days of work if you can’t.
You keep your distance from the other members of your household, just in case. They limit their contact with other people and self-isolate as much as possible, hoping, as you are, for your result to be negative.
And you wonder…when and where were you exposed? The app won’t tell you that. To protect privacy, phones with the COVID Alert app installed exchange anonymous codes when they’re within approximately six feet of each other. If someone tests positive for the virus, they can choose to anonymously notify those other phones via the app. You’ll likely never know who it was or where you encountered them.
See how the app works in this video:
If your test result is negative, like the one below from a Doppler reader, and you still have no symptoms, you can breathe a sigh of relief and return to normal life, or what passes for normal right now. But it’s still important for you to self-monitor—if you develop symptoms, you’ll have to be tested again.
If the result is positive, you’ll get a call from a public health official who will tell you how long you need to stay home. They will also follow up with your close contacts and tell them whether or not they need to be tested as well. You can also notify other COVID Alert users that you’ve been nearby via the app.
An unknown number of Muskoka residents received an alert from the app late last week after three cases of COVID-19 were reported, although there’s no way for app users to know if the notification they received was related to one of those cases. There has been no further increase in the Huntsville case count since then, although some of those notified by the app may still be awaiting test results.
In his weekly briefing on September 1, Dr. Charles Gardner, the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit’s medical officer of health, reminded people that while the app “is an added protection to alert people that they’ve been in close proximity—two metres or less for 15 minutes or more—to an individual who also has the app and turns out to be a case, I think it’s important for people to know that they shouldn’t rely on that.”
Physical distancing, frequent hand-washing, use of masks in indoor public places, and self-monitoring all remain the most important things people can do to help prevent spread of the coronavirus, along with self-isolating and seeking assessment if they develop symptoms. “You have to keep doing all of that and not rely on the app alone to do that for you,” said Dr. Gardner.
If you haven’t downloaded the COVID Alert app, it is available for free on both the App Store (for iOS 13.5 or newer) and Google Play (for Android version 6 or newer). COVID Alert launched on July 31 and by mid-August had been downloaded by almost two million people.
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