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Following Up: Overdose prevention app finds success in Thunder Bay

Nearly 300 people have used the Lifeguard app locally since it launched in April.

THUNDER BAY - A smartphone app meant to prevent fatal drug overdoses has been used hundreds of times since launching locally in the spring.

So far, 285 people in the region have downloaded the app, and it’s been used more than 600 times.

That means it’s being used more per capita here than in B.C. where it first launched over a year ago, reported Lifeguard Digital Health CEO Jeff Hardy during a visit to the city this week.

Users activate the app with a one-minute timer before taking drugs. The alarm time can be extended up to five minutes, but if the user fails to hit the stop button it will grow louder until a text-to-voice call goes to EMS dispatchers, alerting them of a potential overdose.

The app, which is being run as a pilot project by NorWest Community Health Centres, also provides support to people who come across someone who is overdosing, including a Naloxone guide and CPR instructions. In addition, it includes links to medical advice, a suicide line, and a crisis hotline.

Hardy met with organizations including the local CMHA, Matawa, and Superior North EMS during his visit, along with a stop at the NorWest Community Health Centres on Tuesday.

The agency began piloting the Lifeguard app in April with financial support from the Thunder Bay District Social Services Administration Board, making Thunder Bay the first community in Ontario to do so.

Hardy plans to continue expanding the app as widely as possible, he said.

“This epidemic of the opioid crisis, it’s not ending,” he said. “I know COVID’s starting to come to an end, and that’s great, but this one is not. So the more we can get the word out and try to tackle the stigma… Having Lifeguard out there is another tool in the toolbox.”

Authorities have pointed to a dramatic spike in fatal overdoses in Thunder Bay during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hardy’s passion for the project is personal. He himself underwent treatment for his relationship with alcohol, he said.

It was at that time that a friend passed away from a fentanyl overdose. That left Hardy wanting to do something to help others in similar situations.

It started with a simple concept.

“I’m not a very technical person, so it was more diagrams – I had a vision, and it sort of just came [together],” he said, with some help from local government and other agencies.

Hardy’s lived experience and passion has helped make his Vancouver-based company a valuable partner, said NorWest CEO Juanita Lawson, who said the app can be a "life-saving device."

“Jeff has his own journey that I think allows him to really understand where people are at,” she said.

Debbie Reed said the technology could help give those with addictions and their loved ones some badly needed peace of mind.

Her son passed away from an overdose in March of 2020, and she’s since become involved with efforts to advocate for harm reduction and combat stigma through the group Moms Stop the Harm.

“I can tell you I would have been very grateful had there been an app like this when my son was alive and in active addiction,” she said. “I think it would have given me at least a little bit of comfort to know what’s out there.”

The promotion of the app is one more step in the battle to talk openly about addiction and reduce the stigma that she said keeps many who are struggling from getting the help they need.

“I’d like to see people banish their stigma, banish these preconceived notions they have about people they’ve never met,” she said.

With files from Danielle Bain, TBT News.

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