The Alberta government has made an overdose prevention app available to users in Edmonton as part of its response to increasing rates of opioid-related deaths in the city this year.
The app — which connects drug users with support staff who can call emergency responders if they suspect an overdose — first launched in Calgary in August. The province hopes expanding its reach to Edmonton will help stop an escalating number of drug-poisoning deaths.
The rate and number of people dying while using opioids in that city is rising faster than in the rest of the province. Almost 300 people died in Edmonton during the first seven months of 2021.
“The numbers are people,” said Angela Welz, whose 18-year-old daughter Zoe died while using drugs nearly five years ago. “[They are] people who have families and people who are loved. And the families are left reeling after these losses.”
Province planning new supervised consumption site
In 2016, Zoe was among 553 Albertans who died from opioid overdoses. In the first seven months of 2021, 821 Albertans died of opioid poisoning, according to new data from the Alberta substance use surveillance system.
Last year, Alberta posted a record 1,158 opioid-poisoning deaths. The government wants to avoid surpassing that number with measures such as the app and by putting a supervised consumption site in the Strathcona area of the city. It would be Edmonton’s first such site on the city’s south side. The province is in the process of scoping out a site.
Alberta government spokesperson Eric Engler said the province believes an increase in organized crime and carfentanil in Edmonton are leading to more opioid harms.
App intended for people who use drugs alone
Users who download Digital Overdose Response System (DORS) can set a timer in the app when they’re using substances. If they don’t turn the timer off later or respond to an alarm, a dispatcher will call the person.
If there is no response and the dispatcher suspects an emergency, they will summon emergency medical services (EMS).
With most overdose deaths occurring at home, the app is geared to people who use alone — an important demographic to reach, said Lerena Greig, executive director of the support organization Parents Empowering Parents.
“It’s kind of having a person to support you without having to have a person there,” she said.
Critics say Alberta was too slow to introduce app
Opioids have been taking a brutal toll across the country. Last month, Ontario’s science table recommended implementing a wide variety of strategies to tackle the opioid crisis that has worsened significantly in that province.
Alberta’s app, which costs about $325,000 to develop and maintain, first launched in Calgary in August. It expanded to Edmonton this month. Other locations in Alberta will be included in the coming months, a government news release said.
British Columbia has had a similar app, called Lifeguard, since May of 2020 and some advocates say Alberta was too slow to introduce one.
In June 2020, the Alberta government came under fire for cancelling a pilot project that would virtually connect drug users in remote locations with support people to monitor them.
NDP addictions and mental health critic Lori Sigurdson said the United Conservative Party’s focus on addictions recovery and reticence to expand harm reduction approaches is costing lives.
“When four people — or more than that — are dying a day, and we’re on track with our deadliest year ever, I mean that’s a crisis,” she said. “And we’re not having crisis responses from this government.”
Engler said the provincial government wanted an app that connected people with trained emergency dispatchers, which Alberta’s previous pilot project did not. He said the DORS app, from Alberta company Aware 360, was modified from existing technology used by workers who work alone in high-risk situations.
The government won’t release app usage data, citing privacy concerns.
Welz, who is a board member with the organization Moms Stop the Harm, said Alberta needs to grow the number of supervised consumption sites in the province beyond the six permanent and mobile sites in Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer, Lethbridge and Grande Prairie. Health professionals who work there can better reach people who don’t have cell phones or Internet access, she said.
Advocates are also worried pushback from neighbours may slow down any new sites in Edmonton, potentially costing more lives.