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More than 1,100 Albertans died last year of opioid overdoses – a record toll that was revealed as the province unveiled a mobile phone app designed to prevent such deaths.

Jason Luan, the province’s associate minister of mental health and addictions, used a news conference announcing the app to provide updated numbers for 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic fuelled a sharp increase in overdose deaths across the country.

Provincial government statistics show 1,128 people died of opioid overdoses in Alberta last year, up from 623 deaths in 2019 and well above the previous record of 806 in 2018. Fentanyl was detected in 90 per cent of the opioid deaths last year.

“Data shows the impact COVID-19 and public-health restrictions put in place to keep us safe has had on those struggling with substance-use disorder, with huge negative impacts on their lives,” Mr. Luan said Tuesday.

Mr. Luan said EMS calls, emergency room visits and hospital admissions related to opioid overdoses all increased during the pandemic. The government’s opioid data website shows there were about 7,200 EMS calls related to opioids last year, compared with about 5,500 a year earlier.

About 70 per cent of the overdose deaths in Alberta last year were in a private setting, Mr. Luan said, and Alberta Health Services said the majority of deaths and EMS calls were in suburban neighbourhoods outside cities’ downtown cores.

Mr. Luan said those statistics drove the province’s decision to develop a smartphone app designed to alert emergency services when someone may be having an overdose.

The Digital Overdose Response System allows users to enter information about their location along with GPS data and indicate when they are taking drugs. That starts a two-minute timer. If the user doesn’t respond to the app when the timer is up, emergency services will send help.

The app will also include information about recovery options.

Last year, the province abruptly cancelled a telephone-based system that would have allowed callers to connect with peers, who could call for help in the event of an overdose. At the time, Mr. Luan warned that using volunteers on the phone to provide medical assistance would be dangerous.

On Tuesday, Mr. Luan insisted he had nothing to do with the phone-based system being cancelled last year and he said the app is merely the “evolution” of that earlier work.

British Columbia was the first province to adopt such an app last year. The B.C. app, Lifeguard, is similar but uses a one-minute timer.

Neil Lilley, the head of dispatch with BC Emergency Health Services, said the app has been used 35,000 times and has allowed emergency personnel to successfully reverse 17 overdoses. Two of those overdoses involved the same person. No one whose use of the app triggered an emergency call has died, he said.

Grenfell Ministries launched the National Overdose Response Service last December. The service, which is a partnership with Brave Technology Co-op, allows drug users to call a phone line and be connected with a volunteer as they use drugs. The volunteer can send help if the caller overdoses.

Alberta’s Opposition NDP said the new app comes far too late to save people who have overdosed since the province cancelled the phone service last year. Lori Sigurdson, the NDP’s critic for mental health and addiction, said the government should speed up its release and make it available across the province at the same time.

“I’m appalled that the program announced today will not be ready until the summer, and even then, only in Calgary,” she said.

“I’m glad the UCP is coming around that the rest of the world has known for decades, which is that harm reduction saves lives and gives people a chance to make different choices.”

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