All Alberta first responders now have the ability to give life-saving naloxone by injection when responding to an overdose call.
“Opioid overdoses and deaths are a public health crisis in Alberta,” Associate Health Minister Brandy Payne said Tuesday at a news conference at a downtown fire hall.
“Everyone in this room knows the devastating impact fentanyl and other opioids are having on families and communities in all regions of this province.”
Last year, 343 people died of apparent drug overdoses related to fentanyl in Alberta. In 2015, that number was 257.
Twenty-two of the 343 deaths involved carfentanil, a far more potent and deadly form of the drug, Payne said.
“We’ve witnessed first-hand the increase in medical calls related to these kinds of drugs, and the devastating impacts that they have on Edmontonians,” Edmonton Fire Chief Ken Block said.
“The addition of naloxone to fire apparatus will enhance our service to the public and ensure our firefighters are protected in the event they come into contact with an opioid while performing their duties,” Block said.
In the last three months of 2016, there were 111 overdose deaths involving fentanyl in Alberta. That number is more than two times higher than it was in the last three months of 2015.
Almost 90 per cent of the deaths were in urban areas. The hardest hit were low-income earners or the needy. One in four victims in Edmonton and Calgary had no fixed address or known home address.
“We’re pleased to hear the province is supporting the delivery and training of naloxone so police officers and firefighters can administer naloxone in the communities we serve,” said Kyle Melting Tallow, the deputy chief of the Blood Tribe Police.
“Having more first responders trained in naloxone will save lives and also hopefully reduce the risk of exposure to this drug to first responders.”
Take-home naloxone is already available without prescription at 921 sites, mostly community pharmacies. They also include non-pharmacy sites such as post-secondary institutions, jails, community health centres and inner city agencies.
Payne also announced the legal medical classification of naloxone will be changed to allow care providers more latitude.
“We need to make naloxone more widely available,” she said. “Community agencies no longer need a nurse on site to administer and distribute naloxone.”
“Our first responders are heroes for their work saving lives on the front lines,” Payne said. “Now firefighters across the province can administer injectable naloxone, giving them an additional life-saving tool when responding to an overdose call.
“Making naloxone more widely accessible to individuals and organizations who want the kits will also help prevent further deaths.”
Naloxone can prevent an overdose from becoming fatal when it’s given immediately and followed up with emergency medical support. The government is providing injectable naloxone kits and training to first responders at no cost.
“However, police and fire departments remain free to make their own operational decisions about carrying and administering naloxone,” a news release said.
The Calgary Police Service said it is grateful for the province’s efforts.
“However, the CPS will be requesting the provincial government extend the program to include nasal naloxone as well as the injectable format,” Mike Nunn said in a statement.
“Nasal naloxone reduces the risk of improper use both for police members and the public. It also eliminates the possibility of accidental exposure by contaminated needles.
“We were already in the process of rolling out the nasal version, and for the health and safety of our members, we will continue with this approach and will not be participating in the injectable format,” Nunn said.
He said the CPS has 250 nasal naloxone kits and is expecting more by February. Nunn said the CPS will ask the province to compensate it for the cost of the nasal naloxone.
The province is also providing $730,000 in grant funding to support agencies working to create supervised consumption services in several communities, including Edmonton and Calgary.
An opioid dependency treatment (ODT) clinic is scheduled to open this spring in Grande Prairie and will have the capacity to serve 300 patients. An additional 300 patients in AHS ODT clinics have been “identified as ready to transition to primary health-care providers, with the aim of opening up spaces for new patients,” the release said.
Alberta Health is publishing quarterly public reports on opioid overdose data and will start posting interim reports on fentanyl deaths.
Wildrose Shadow Health Minister Tany Yao released a statement Tuesday, saying it “saddens” him to see the fentanyl crisis grow.
“Wildrose continues to point out that a public health emergency would allow for greater information sharing and bring more public awareness to the fentanyl crisis in our province,” Yao said.
“Additionally, it is crucial for health practitioners in our province to take a hard look at the 60 per cent of individuals (page 11) who died from fentanyl related overdose in 2016 who had an opioid prescription in the year before their death. More needs to be done to stop opioid addictions that begin through a legitimate prescription.”
With files from The Canadian Press