CALGARY — The Alberta government has expanded a smartphone app aimed at preventing overdoses in people using drugs alone at home.
Mike Ellis, associate minister of mental health and addictions, said Wednesday the app is confidential, free and available across the province, including in rural and First Nations communities.
The app alerts emergency responders if a person using substances has signed in and becomes unresponsive to a pre-set timer.
"If a person doesn't respond to the alarm they will get a call from the fine folks right here at STARS. If an emergency response is required, STARS will contact EMS to dispatch an ambulance to the person's location," Ellis said at the STARS emergency link centre in Calgary.
"We know sadly that about 70-per cent of opioid-related deaths happen in private residences, often alone. The reality of addiction is that it drives people into isolation and when using opioids this can be extremely dangerous."
Alberta recorded its deadliest year on record for drug overdoses in 2021 with more than 1,700 deaths.
The app was introduced last summer, but was only available in Edmonton, Calgary and surrounding areas. It's similar to British Columbia's Lifeguard app.
Ellis said so far the app has been downloaded 900 times with 440 registered users. He said there have been numerous successful medical deployments.
Ellis didn't provide any details.
Darren Sandbeck, senior provincial director and chief paramedic, Alberta Health Services, said it's another tool to help people in trouble.
"We in EMS see the impacts of the opioid crisis every day and we support this app as another means of supporting individuals who use opioids," he said.
"If, while you were using alone, this app will be your buddy, the one who can call for you when you or someone else cannot call 911 for help."
Mike Lamacchia, the chief operating officer of STARS Air Ambulance, said when it comes to overdoses, time is of the essence. He said the app gives them the ability to get to people sooner.
"Sometimes when emergency responses happen to a drug-related call at a private residence it can be too late," he said. "This expansion means simply that we can help more people."
Earl Thiessen, the executive director of the Oxford House Foundation, which helps people in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, said he supports the application and has personal knowledge of the consequences of opioid addiction.
"We are raising my sister's children after her fatal overdose while using alone in suburban Calgary. I would have insisted she used the Digital Overdose Response System when she used alone," said Thiessen.
Harm reduction advocates, including the national group Moms Stop the Harm, questioned the app when it was brought in last year.
The United Conservative Party government has been focused on recovery care and has been criticized for limiting access to supervised consumption sites and injectable opioid agonist therapy.
Lori Sigurdson, NDP critic for mental health and addictions, said the app is a useful tool, but does not do enough to address the horrifying death toll due to drug poisonings in the province.
“The UCP government is refusing to act on clear medical evidence and practices supported by experts. There are proven health care interventions that save lives, but the UCP have reduced access to them," she said in a release.
“The UCP failure to properly respond to this crisis is costing lives, costing taxpayers, and using up already scarce resources in our ambulance and hospital systems."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2022.
Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press