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Local docs make new COVID-19 contact tracing app

‘We’re pretty excited about it,’ Sault physician says

A group of Sault Ste. Marie doctors, with the help of a local information technology expert, has launched a new COVID-19 contact tracing app for cell phones called  CommunityPass.

The app was introduced into the community last week.

“We’re pretty excited about far as I’m aware, we’re the only other specific COVID-19 app other than the government app that’s on the Apple apps (The App Store),” said Dr. Lucas Castellani, Sault Area Hospital (SAH) medical director of infection prevention and control.

As everyone now knows, COVID precautions involve screening (apart from masks, social distancing and lockdowns).

The screening process, at places like restaurants, involves paper questionnaires and providing contact information if it is suspected you’ve been near someone who has COVID.

“Let’s say you go to a restaurant for dinner one night and you have to sign up on a piece of paper, there’s that piece, there’s testing for COVID and you need a place to house your results, the vaccine’s going to be coming and so people will need a place to house their vaccine records, there’s all these pieces in the management of the pandemic that organizations and individuals need, so why not do it all together instead of these fragmented systems? Why not have it all in one place (in a phone app),” Castellani said, speaking to SooToday.

“That’s how we evolved into this all-in-one COVID-19 app called ‘CommunityPass.’”

Upon downloading the app on your cell phone, a series of buttons will be displayed, Castellani explained (for those who love apps and for those who are not tech-savvy and app-challenged).

One button is ‘check in,’ and tagged to that is ‘screening,’ whether it be at work or any other location.

The app, after you complete the COVID questionnaire, will then make note you were at that location.

Other buttons on the app will be for storage of COVID test results and proof of your COVID vaccination.

There will also be links to information from public health agencies, such as Algoma Public Health (APH).

“We’re still finalizing the public health link (with APH),” Castellani said, but the app (thanks to public health information) will ping you if it suspects you’ve been near someone who has COVID.

“What public health could do with ‘CommunityPass’ is they can find out who electronically checked into a location at that time and notify other individuals (with the app) of the significant exposure.”

Clearly, a lot of people would have to download the app for it to be of much use to the community.

“The more people that jump on, the more usable it would be to public health,” Castellani said, emphasizing APH has not ‘hired’ the CommunityPass team or been officially endorsed by that agency, but are working with each other on a communication and consultation basis.  

“We had been talking for a long time about improving access to patient health records, improving the process from an electronic point of view, because I and my colleagues are a mix of family doctors, emergency room doctors and I’m an infectious diseases specialist.”

“Then COVID came along and the one gap, we felt, was the piece around making a (record-keeping) system from an electronic point of view...then someone asked us ‘can you make an app for this, for COVID screening?’”

The app is the result of planning by Castellani, Dr. Derek Garniss, SAH emergency program medical director, Dr. Stephen Smith, SAH emergency doctor, Dr. Matthew Solomon, SAH physician and Wendy Doda, Sault Ste. Marie Academic Medical Association (SSM AMA) research coordinator.

The group, collectively known in a business sense as My Community Health, approached the Sault’s Josh McColeman from Digital Grounds to make the app a reality.

The app is not a SAH project, even though most of the people involved are SAH employees, Castellani said.

It is also hoped the hospital will adopt the app, he added.

“It’s free (for individuals) to download because we want everyone to use it,” Castellani said.

There is a fee for businesses or organizations for the app’s automatic check in service and the accompanying beacons in their buildings (similar to WiFi locations). 

“We see a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel now with the vaccines coming through, so it’s fingers crossed and hope for the best. Apps like these are good but let’s hope that we can move forward through this thing,” Castellani said.