New overdose prevention app can help save lives

By Natali Trivuncic
Staff Writer

Pilot launch aims to decrease opioid deaths

Substance use is a taboo subject not often talked about. With the rise in opioid related deaths in the district, a new app can help to save lives while keeping users anonymous.

Lifeguard Digital Health’s overdose prevention Lifeguard App was launched as a one-year pilot project in northwestern Ontario. While it may be new to the District, it originated in British Columbia in 2020.

The data collected from the app launch in B.C shows 50,000 individuals that have downloaded the app and they’ve had 33 individuals that were responded to and received services through EMS, a Lifeguard digital health app and as a result of that they survived.

NorWest Community Health Centres, with the support of The District of Thunder Bay Social Services Administration Board, partnered with Lifeguard Digital Health to bring the app to northwestern Ontario after the successful launch of the app in B.C.

Juanita Lawson, CEO of NorWest Community Health Centres, said they are hoping to see less overdoses in northwestern Ontario.

“We’re also hoping that people will reach out to services when they’re ready,” Lawson said. “And that family and friends will also download the app and share the information with their loved ones.”

The Lifeguard App supports substance users with a direct link to emergency responders if an overdose occurs. It also provides information for communities to help each other, including alerts on local supply contaminants, a Naloxone guide, CPR instructions, locations of supervised injection sites, opioid treatments, detox services and drug testing facilities.

The app covers the district of Thunder Bay, the city of Thunder Bay, the Rainy River District and Kenora. The purpose of the pilot project is to see what the uptake is, how many people might not only download the app but use it and activate it and where EMS services activate and what’s the response.

The app is activated by the user before they take their dose, with a one-minute timer. The alarm time can be extended up to five minutes but if the user fails to hit the stop button, the alarm will grow louder until a text-to-voice call goes to emergency service dispatchers alerting them of a potential overdose.

“It empowers individuals to say this is where I am, I’m going to be using this substance, but I want to stay safe,” Lawson said.

Lawson said their community partners have done a great job to get the app activated and implemented, which is crucial as the data that’s coming out shows that northern Ontario has had the highest opioid-related deaths during COVID.

“I think there are issues around isolation and health disparities, and access to services, but it’s also really clear to us that people are struggling,” Lawson said. “We need to take a look at what is going on so that we can support individuals to deal with it, whether it’s pain, trauma or grief.”

According to a report released by Public Health Ontario in November 2020, the number of opioid-related deaths increased in the weeks following the state of emergency declaration in Ontario last year. Overall, there was a 38.2 per cent increase in opioid-related deaths in the first 15 weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic (695 deaths; average of 46 deaths weekly) compared to 15 weeks prior (503 deaths; average of 34 deaths weekly).

Chad Buist, Chief of Paramedic Services in Fort Frances, said opioid overdoses and deaths have been climbing and they hope that this tool improves future outcomes across the district.

“Although the majority of the overdoses occurred in Fort Frances, it was really important when we were in the planning stages to make sure that the app works across our whole district because one of the options we had was just to close it to a small area,” Buist said.

Buist added that saving one life makes it all worth it.

The Rainy River District Social Services Administration Board (RRDSSAB) 2020 annual report was a reality check to the rise in mental health and addiction in the district. The report states that mental health and addictions represents a growing concern for the Rainy River District and has been increasing rapidly. However, due to the isolation of COVID-19, it has reached crisis level across the district.

The report shows that the number of mental health and addictions calls for paramedic services in the district has increased from 190 in 2015 to 427 in 2020.

Dan McCormick, CAO of the RRDSSAB, said they are concerned about the numbers almost doubling in such a short time frame and as one of NorWest’s community partners, they hope to stabilize those numbers and that the app will get picked up by other parts of the province.

Lawson said when the year is over, they are hoping to find ways to sustain the app in northwestern Ontario, by breaking the stigma and embracing conversations surrounding substance use.