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COVID-19 pandemic having ‘stark effects’ on opioid-related deaths in Alberta

Click to play video 'Hundreds die from opioid overdoses in Alberta as COVID 19 pandemic hit' Hundreds die from opioid overdoses in Alberta as COVID 19 pandemic hit
Alberta Health says 449 people died from opioid overdoses in the province during the first six months of this year. Fletcher Kent reports – Sep 23, 2020

The number of people who have died of opioid overdoses in Alberta between April and June this year is more than any three-month period recorded in the last four years, and the province says the COVID-19 pandemic has played a role in the increase.

The province released new numbers Wednesday which show 301 people died of an unintentional opioid poisoning between April 2020 and June 2020 — after the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Previously, the highest number of opioid-related deaths recorded in a three-month period in Alberta was 211, according to numbers in the province’s Q2 Opioid Response Surveillance Report which date back to 2015.

Credit, COVID-19 Opioid Response Surveillance Report
Credit, COVID-19 Opioid Response Surveillance Report. Credit, COVID-19 Opioid Response Surveillance Report

The province said the report “highlights the stark effects that COVID-19 has had when it comes to unintentional opioid poisoning.”

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“The past few months have led to increased fear and anxiety, isolation, disruption to in-person services, job uncertainty and more. This has exacerbated the struggles of many Albertans, including those struggling with substance use,” Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jason Luan said in a media release.

Read more: Canada’s other health-care crisis: the epidemic of fatal drug overdoses

Click to play video 'Different responses to rise in opioid overdoses in B.C. and Alberta' Different responses to rise in opioid overdoses in B.C. and Alberta
Different responses to rise in opioid overdoses in B.C. and Alberta – Sep 24, 2020

The report outlined how business closures earlier this year caused “profound challenges” for all Albertans, but noted vulnerable populations — including those with substance-use issues — faced even more adversity accessing the supports and services they depend on. The report noted that led to increased stress and anxiety.

“Beginning in March 2020, the number of harms associated with opioid use began to increase significantly, reaching record levels not previously seen,” the report reads. “This sharp rise was in conjunction with a decrease in the utilization of treatment and harm-reduction services.”

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Read more: Coronavirus: Ontario opioid crisis worsens during pandemic as services for drug users scale back

The associate minister said Alberta is not the only province seeing a spike in opioid deaths amid the pandemic.

“Alberta is not alone in this reality — British Columbia has reported similar findings and trends during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we anticipate similar findings in other jurisdictions, such as Ontario, which is in the preliminary stages of reporting,” Luan said.

Click to play video 'Opioid crisis worsened during COVID-19 pandemic' Opioid crisis worsened during COVID-19 pandemic
Opioid crisis worsened during COVID-19 pandemic – May 28, 2020

Drastic drop in use of supervised consumption services

The report also pointed to a drastic drop in the number of visits to supervised consumption sites in the second quarter of 2020 compared to the first quarter.

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Between April and June 2020, there were 40,755 visits to supervised consumption sites in Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge and Grande Prairie, and to the Red Deer overdose prevention site.

In the previous quarter, there were 114,430 visits to these sites.

The Opposition NDP’s critic for mental health and addiction said the numbers are shocking and called the deaths preventable.

“More Albertans have died from an opioid overdose in the last three months than in the entirety of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Heather Sweet said in a media release.

Read more: Illicit drug deaths in B.C. higher than homicides, car crashes, suicide, COVID-19 combined: report

As of Tuesday afternoon, 258 COVID-19 related deaths have been recorded in Alberta.

“The single most important responsibility of any government is to protect human life,” Sweet said. “But this government is turning away from scientific evidence and medical best practices and returning to a failed ‘war on drugs’ approach.

“Every one of those deaths was preventable if there had been someone in the room or on the phone to call for help. Every one of those Albertans leaves behind grieving family and friends.”

Sweet also pointed to the closure of the supervised consumption site in Lethbridge, which was shuttered in August after the province announced it would be pulling funding due to an audit earlier this year that suggested public money had been mismanaged.

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Government needs to ‘get off its high horse’

Petra Schulz is one of the founding directors of Moms Stop The Harm, an organization that calls for an end to the failed “war on drugs” through evidence-based prevention, treatment and policy change.

Schulz lost her youngest child, Danny, to an accidental fentanyl overdose in 2014.

She said she expected the data to be bad, but admitted seeing the numbers Wednesday broke her heart.

“It blows me away how many people are dying in Alberta from a preventable cause of death… and we’re not doing anything about it, we’re not even talking about it.”

Schulz said she was disappointed to see the information released by the province in a media release during the throne speech, rather than at a news conference.

“This government does not seem to care if people live or die,” she said. “This government is not supporting harm reduction, in particular supervised consumption. They have shut down the busiest consumption site in the country, in Lethbridge.

“When people use at home and they use alone, that’s when it’s most unsafe because if you overdose, you can’t save yourself. You have to have someone else there to use naloxone… You need a friend, you need a supporter, you need nurses around or harm reduction workers like you would have in the consumption site. That certainly makes a difference.

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“None of these measures are being taken in Alberta.”

On top of treatment options, Schulz wants to see the government make supervised consumption services a priority.

“They have to remove the uncertainty around supervised consumption services. They have to fully endorse and fund and keep all supervised consumption services in Alberta, and there are communities where they should be expanded,” she said.

“They have to reopen Lethbridge,” she added. “If there are issues with the current provider, don’t shut down the service, find a new provider. They also have to move into safer supply of pharmaceutical alternatives to toxic street drugs so people don’t die of the toxic mix we have on the streets.

“This government has to get off its high horse and put a strategy together, a plan that addresses this crisis rather than ignoring it.”

The first 6 months of 2020

In the first six months of 2020, 449 people died in Alberta from an unintentional opioid poisoning, or an average of 2.5 deaths every day.

That’s compared to 350 opioid-related deaths in Alberta in the first half of 2019, 400 deaths in the first half of 2018, 321 deaths in the first six months of 2017 and 251 deaths in the first half of 2016.

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Read more: More Canadians are dying of drug overdoses — and coronavirus is to blame

Of the deaths reported so far this year, 79 per cent of the victims have been men. The age group to see the highest proportion of deaths was 35 to 39 among men and 30 to 34 among women.

COVID-19 pandemic having ‘dire impact’ on those who use opioids

The province’s chief medical officer of health addressed the report during her COVID-19 update on Thursday afternoon.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw said the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, along with the resulting restrictions that have been implemented are “far reaching.”

“COVID-19 is one of the most significant public health challenges that we have faced in several generations. At times, it has forced us to make difficult choices and implement aggressive restrictions to limit the spread, prevent our health system from being overwhelmed and protect those most at risk,” Hinshaw said.

“The report released yesterday showed the challenges that many who use opioids and other substances have faced and the dire impact that this pandemic has had on their lives.”

She called the number of deaths related to opioids “staggering.”

“My heart goes out to everyone who has lost someone they loved,” she said.

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“It can’t be ignored that deaths rose during the first few months of the pandemic, which we know caused challenges for many Albertans. This includes challenges in accessing the supports and services they depend on and increases in isolation, stress and anxiety.”

Hinshaw also pointed out that there were more than 3,000 emergency and urgent care visits related to opioids and other drug use between April and June.

“These numbers are difficult and troubling to hear,” she said. “I know there is more to do. The pandemic is still going to be with us for many months.

“If any changes are needed, we will make them.”

Credit, COVID-19 Opioid Response Surveillance Report
Credit, COVID-19 Opioid Response Surveillance Report. Credit, COVID-19 Opioid Response Surveillance Report

The province said Wednesday it is committed to ensuring all Albertans have access to the support they need. The province pointed to $53 million in funding announced earlier this year to enhance online, phone and in-person mental health and addiction recovery supports during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“Every life lost to addiction is one too many. I encourage anyone impacted by substance use, whether a loved one or yourself, to reach out for support,” Luan said.

Alberta’s 24/7 Addiction Helpline can be reached at 1-866-332-2322.