Alberta’s COVID-19 Opioid Response Surveillance Report was released on Wednesday, shining a light on some alarming numbers from the first half of 2020.
The data don’t look good for Lethbridge, with the city on track to record its most opioid overdose deaths since 2016.
The highest number of deaths recorded in Lethbridge due to opioid overdoses was in 2018, when the city saw 32 people unintentionally die from drug poisoning. Through the first six months of 2020, Lethbridge — when combining the province’s numbers for fentanyl-related deaths and fatalities from opioids other than fentanyl — has already seen 22 overdose deaths.
Alberta Health told Global News that it does not expect to see that trend continue into the second half of the year, with third-quarter findings — which have not been released — already showing the province a drop in death rates.
The report released Wednesday linked an uptick in opioid deaths across the province to the COVID-19 pandemic, saying, “beginning in March 2020, the number of harms associated with opioid use began to increase significantly, reaching record levels not previously seen. This sharp rise was in conjunction with a decrease in the utilization of treatment and harm-reduction services.”
The data in the report do not include numbers since Lethbridge’s supervised consumption site (SCS) was closed on Aug. 31. The site, run by ARCHES, had funding pulled by the Alberta government following a provincial audit.
But Alberta Health told Global News on Wednesday that there is a glimmer of hope when it comes to overdose numbers in the area, as Lethbridge EMS calls for opioid overdoses have dropped in September.
The city has seen 19 so far this month, down significantly from the previous three-month average of 45.
Jason Luan, associate minister of Mental Health and Addiction, issued a statement to Global News about the latest numbers.
“Despite rising numbers in the province due to the pandemic, in September, after the closure of ARCHES, the City of Lethbridge has experienced a 36 per cent decrease in opioid-related EMS responses and a modest decrease in drug and alcohol overdose deaths thus far,” the statement said.
“While one is too many, we will continue working hard for the community of Lethbridge to ensure resources are in place for the individuals impacted.”
Nearby, Blood Tribe health officials say they too are noticing fewer overdose calls.
Jacen Abrey, executive director of strategic development for the Blood Tribe Department of Health, says a concerted effort to mitigate the impact of the SCS closure was made by Blood Tribe staff.
“We put staff into Lethbridge — as well as volunteers — to repatriate the members, and started bringing them out to Bringing the Spirit Home, which is a detox centre,” Abrey said.
“We’re looking after the members in a different way by detoxing them, and bringing them back to the Blood Tribe to give them a different option than using.”
Abrey says that drop in EMS calls for overdoses can be observed in the last three months, when comparing year-over-year data.
In July of 2019, Blood Tribe EMS responded to 29 opioid overdose-related calls, compared to 24 in 2020.
August of 2019 saw 43 versus 26 this year, and so far in September, 12 calls have been received, compared to 18 at this point in 2019.
Addictions expert Dr. Carson McPherson says the news doesn’t come as a surprise.
McPherson is part of the National Policy Committee for the Canadian Society of Addiction Medicine, and cites moral hazard as a potential explanation for the drop in overdose calls since the SCS in Lethbridge shut down.
Moral hazard is originally an economic term, and in the context of drug users means that a user might have an incentive to increase their exposure to risk — in this case, drug use — knowing that they will not bear the full consequences of that risk.
“Ultimately, it can be very hard to find and navigate through recovery pathways when there is such services — albeit with good intentions — but are really perpetuating the disease of addiction itself by the very design of what’s taking place,” he said.
A temporary mobile overdose prevention site was opened in Lethbridge following the SCS closure, and the Blood Tribe is set to open a recovery community with an additional 75 treatment beds in 2021.