Alberta is on track to see its deadliest year for opioid deaths ever.
The latest numbers released by the province on Friday show that, on average, four people a day die from overdoses across Alberta.
The numbers have been on the rise since May 2020, when overdose deaths jumped 45 per cent. Since then, more than 100 people — sons, daughters, fathers and mothers — have died each month.
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Those in their 30s, specifically 35 to 39, are most at risk, and men are disproportionally affected, making up three-quarters of overdose fatalities.
Critics of The United Conservative Party (UCP), as well as doctors on the frontlines, are quick to remind us that life-saving solutions could be put in place.
The NDP’s mental health and addictions critic said the opioid poisoning crisis is a tragedy that is preventable.
“We know that we have a very toxic drug supply on the streets right now and so they need to do drug testing, they need to make sure that there is a safe supply. And they need to be expanding supervised consumption sites,” said Lori Sigurdson.
Sigurdson adds the UCP needs to expand supervised consumption sites.
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Calgary family physician Dr. Bonnie Larson said the crisis is getting worse and worse every day, but the response is lacking. She suggests decriminalization and regulation of drug supply is one way to stem the emergency.
“Not just overdose prevention, but getting at the core of stigma — which is criminalization of drug use. We need to talk about this, at least have conversations about this,” she said.
“Until we start seeing a real change, we should be maximizing all of the good evidence-based interventions that we have. We are nowhere near using all those resources and interventions that we know work.”
She goes on to say government inaction isn’t helping.
“UCP shenanigans are preventing anybody from actually implementing the interventions that are known to save lives.”
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Dr. Ginetta Salvalaggio, co-chair of Edmonton’s Opioid Poisoning Committee, said the crisis — paired with the COVID-19 pandemic — has led to even more strained health-care resources.
“It’s system overwhelm. We have a bunch of other things going on so our response times are down,” she said.
“It’s heartbreaking but it’s unsurprising. The proposed responses don’t pay attention to what people who use drugs and those on the front lines have been calling for — to restore the resources we have been calling for and expand harm-reduction services.
“We saw an uptick in the spring with the closure of one of central Edmonton’s supervised consumption sites. EMS calls went up almost right away.”
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Salvalaggio said she also would like to see more current data being released. The province currently has surveillance data up to August 2021.
“I think in an emergency situation, you need data and you need data fast,” she said. “To be fair, I think we are seeing more frequent updates. For example, EMS updates. They have updated mortality data to August, which is better than it was. But it’s hard to make decisions on the ground.
“Everybody would like to know — we want to be able to form an appropriate response on the health-care side. We are not the only ones clamoring for data. It’s a common need.”
In a statement, Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addiction Mike Ellis said, “Each life lost to the illness of addiction is a tragedy. With 70 per cent of opioid-related fatalities happening at home, it is essential that Albertans using at home alone download the Digital Overdose Response System (DORS).”
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DORS is a new provincial app with a timer, which if not deactivated by the user when prompted, will trigger a call to emergency services.
Ellis also went to say the province is funding 4,000 new annual treatment spaces while continuing to ensure that services that reduce harm remain available to Albertans.
Calgary’s downtown supervised consumption site will be closing its doors after the province stated the site has been highly disruptive to the neighbourhood.
Services will be replaced by two other currently unknown locations in the city.
With files from Radana Williams
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