Nearly 1,300 Albertans died from fatal drug poisonings in 2020

The numbers were released as Jason Luan, the associate minister for mental health and addictions, released a new smartphone app aimed at preventing fatal overdoses. 

New smartphone app comes 9 months after province cancelled phone support project

Jason Luan is Alberta's associate minister of mental health and addictions. (Alberta legislature pool feed )

New statistics released by the province Tuesday show 1,281 Albertans died of drug poisonings in 2020, the highest total recorded in a single year. 

In 2019, the number of deaths was 797, down from the 957 in 2018.

The numbers were released as Jason Luan, associate minister for mental health and addictions, announced a new smartphone app aimed at preventing fatal overdoses.

The Digital Overdose Response System was developed by Alberta company Aware 360. The app will be tested in Calgary this summer and expand to other areas of Alberta next year. 

The new app comes nine months after the government cancelled a phone-based supervised consumption service just before it was launched by Alberta Health Services. 

Some people who worked on the phone service were moved to help develop the smartphone app, he said. 

"I think the vision, the idea, to create something virtually can reach out to those who are stuck in addiction and have a way to connect them for assistance to support them is a great idea," Luan said.

Edmonton-Riverview MLA Lori Sigurdson, the NDP Opposition critic for mental health and addictions, said she is glad Luan was finally embracing a form of harm reduction. However, she said, the app will take too long to roll out across the province, particularly since the government had a different program ready last June. 

"If Mr. Luan hadn't reached in and stopped it, hundreds of people would still be alive," Sigurdson said. 

Luan denied he was responsible for killing the program. He said the decision was based on recommendations from a team of advisers. 

EMS sent to unresponsive app users

Luan was unable to explain to reporters how the DORS app differed from the in-house option cancelled in June 2020. 

His press secretary Kassandra Kitz followed up with an email to CBC News. 

"It is important that when an Albertan's life is at risk that a trained professional, rather than a volunteer or peer, is available to respond," Kitz wrote. "The DORS app, unlike the other program, provides a direct link to life-saving EMS intervention and uses technology that is already tested and reliable."

The DORS app sends an alarm to someone while they are using opioids or other addictive drugs. If the user fails to acknowledge the alarm, STARS dispatch then alerts emergency services to send help to an address that was entered earlier into the app interface.

British Columbia started using a similar app called Lifeguard last year.

Aware 360 received $325,000 to develop the DORS app. They were awarded the contract through a sole-source arrangement. Kitz said the company was "uniquely positioned" to offer the service because they already offered lone-worker safety monitoring, something that could be easily adapted for this type of app.

The government isn't providing additional money to STARS, which operates air ambulance services in Alberta. Kitz referred CBC's questions to Aware 360 which has the contract with the government.