CALGARY -- When Alberta launched its COVID-19 tracing app on May 1, Heather Baxter was one of the first people to download it.

“I believe it’s almost a commitment to the rest of the citizens of Alberta to protect your health,” said Baxter, a family physician and university lecturer in Calgary.

“This is how tracing COVID cases can be done more efficiently.”

Baxter encouraged her friends and co-workers to use the app as well, and many quickly signed up.

But seven weeks after the ABTraceTogether app was launched, 210,093 Albertans — roughly five per cent of the population — had downloaded it as of June 19.

Health officials originally said at least 20 per cent needed the app for it to be effective.

“I’ve been really quite surprised there has been so little uptake,” said Baxter. “And I’m surprised there hasn’t been more advertising from the Alberta government to support it.”

Since its launch, health officials acknowledged there would be obstacles to ABTraceTogther becoming ubiquitous on mobile devices and turning into an effective tracing model.

The app works by tracking other phones running the app that come within two meters for at least 15 minutes.

If a person who uses the app becomes infected with COVID-19, health officials can notify other app users who they may have come in contact with.

However, this is can’t happen if someone forgets their phone at home, turns it off, or is exposed to an infected person for less than 15 minutes.

Also, unlike Android devices, iPhones need the app to be open and the phone unlocked for it to work.

The biggest obstacle, however, is that the app only does its job when it encounters other app users and right now, there are relatively few of them.

“I hoped we would have a higher proportion of Albertans downloading it,” said Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health.

"I also know that for Albertans who use Apple products, the way that this particular app works is inconvenient ... so I can understand why people who are using those products would perhaps not wish to download it.”

Some Albertans have also expressed concerns for their privacy, though the government says information gathered isn’t permanently stored and is only shared with user permission.

It’s also unclear how, or if, Alberta’s tracing app will interface with a new national tracing app that is now being tested.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he hopes it will soon be used across the country.

“We are in discussion with federal government ... and are goal is to be able to have an inter-operability between the different apps,” said Hinshaw.

Baxter says even though most people aren’t downloading the app, it’s not going to stop her from using it.

“There is no point taking it off,” she said.

“I just don’t think it's been as beneficial as it could have been, especially once we open up and have contact with so many people. There is no way you’ll remember what you were doing and who you were doing it with a few weeks ago.”