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Health policy expert says trust needed for Alberta overdose response app to work

CALGARY — A health policy expert says Alberta's app to keep drug users safe in the event of an overdose is a worthy endeavour, but she's concerned fear could prevent many from using it.

Elaine Hyshka, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta's School of Public Health, says drug users may be concerned about privacy or worry that police could show up at their door if the app activates while they are overdosing.

The Digital Overdose Response System, which is already in use in Calgary, Edmonton and their surrounding communities, has a timer, and if users doesn't respond within a certain time after consuming a narcotic, EMS is dispatched to their homes.

Premier Jason Kenney, who has faced criticism for his government's closure of safe-injection sites, told a news conference Saturday at a drug recovery centre in Calgary that many people who die of opioid overdoses are in the suburbs, far from the sites. 

Kenney says the app will still connect with them with the help they need if they pass out while using drugs.

But Hyshka says the province has lots of work to do to get drug users to trust the app.

"What we've seen in other jurisdictions that have had these apps for much longer, like British Columbia, is that they're useful for some people but they're not really widespread -- there isn't widespread uptake," Hyshka said in an interview Saturday.

"It's not a bad thing to have an app. I actually think it's really important to try new things we haven't done before to get on top of the situation, but we just have to do a lot of due diligence to ensure it works well for people."

Eric Engler, a spokesman for Mental Health and Addictions Minister Mike Ellis, said in an email that there have been more than 650 downloads of the DORS App with over 230 registered users. .

"The DORS app is working as intended and is providing response to those who need it," Engler said, noting it is a "confidential and anonymous service."

Last month, the province said, on average, four people a day die from overdoses across Alberta.

Engler said 70 per cent of opioid-related fatalities happen at home.

Kenney, who along with Ellis, announced additional addictions treatment spaces on Saturday, said the app reaches users where they are.

"Most of the people who die of opioid overdoses are not homeless folks on the street in the downtown. Most of those deaths are are happening in homes in the suburbs, often middle-class people who are not going to drive downtown to a safe-consumption site," Kenney told reporters.

"We need to go where people are, and that includes folks who are using in their homes."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 4, 2021.

The Canadian Press