The Alberta Substance Use Surveillance System tool went live Friday afternoon, which officials say is the most comprehensive platform of its kind in Canada.
Instead of releasing PDFs on a quarterly basis that report opioid-related deaths and EMS responses, the online platform will share more data — searchable by drug, region, age and sex — for a broader substance-use perspective.
Statistics for accidental substance-related fatalities and EMS calls will be updated more frequently — on a monthly basis.
“Between July and October alone, 449 Albertans died from apparent unintentional opioid poisoning,” chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw said.
“My heart goes out to all who have lost a loved one. It’s a sad reminder that while COVID-19 is a serious and deadly pandemic, it is not the only public health crisis impacting our families and communities.
“I ask Albertans to show compassion and support to those dealing with substance use issues, their families and friends, and all those grieving the loss of a loved one.”
Alberta officials said this site will offer more data — and be updated more frequently — than any other province or territory.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is not the only public health crisis in Alberta,” Premier Jason Kenney said.
“Thousands of Albertans continue to battle mental health and addictions issues, often times made more difficult by public health measures, and Alberta’s government is firmly committed to being there to help them recover.”
“This new data system will give us better insights into addiction issues, help us respond with better measures to support recovery, and ultimately support our overall goal of protecting lives and livelihoods through this pandemic and beyond.”
They believe it will help address the opioid crisis because providing community agencies, partners and primary care networks with more data will help them make evidence-based decisions about treatment, programs and other responses.
“It will be enormously helpful to all of the different social services organizations, treatment centres, people working in addictions counselling,” Kenney said.
“They’ll be able to see, with much more precision, what exactly is going on, what the trends are… which regions or which neighbourhoods are most heavily affected. We’ll be able to track all that data much more closely to real time, which will help us shift resources where needed to address challenges.”
The online dashboard includes 14 tabs of searchable data related to substance use — not just opioids but other substances like cocaine and meth — as well as dispensation data, supervised consumption sites, dependency programs, hospitalization numbers and EMS calls.
The trends are consistent with what other jurisdictions are seeing, officials said.
So far in 2020, there have been 1,028 unintentional drug poisoning deaths. That includes data up until the end of October and includes all drugs.
That is more than in the four previous years, the dashboard shows. In 2019, there were 800 deaths, in 2018 there were 957, in 2017 there were 861 and in 2016 there were 685.
The premier said the data is a “serious reminder of how much work remains.”
In 2020, up to the end of October, Alberta has recorded 904 opioid-related deaths. Looking back earlier in the year, opioid deaths peaked in July (142), then declined from August (106), September (101) to October (94).
In July 2020, more opioid deaths were recorded than in any other month in the province’s history.
From July to October, opioid overdose deaths decreased by 33 per cent and, similarly, emergency medical services responses decreased by 36 per cent from July to October. However, both rates remain significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels.
The premier suggested more drug use could be one of the “unintended consequences” of Alberta’s public health restrictions put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19. He also pointed to the federal government’s CERB payments as one of the factors potentially driving up drug use rates.
“You take someone who might have been receiving, well here in Alberta, $750 a month I believe, from income support and you suddenly move that up to $2,000 a month, and that person is more inclined perhaps to spend that money on fentanyl or meth than they are on a healthy meal. Well, inevitably that’s going to lead in a dangerous direction,” Kenney said.
“I think all governments need to learn from what happened here this year and see how we can better manage income support programs for people struggling with addiction.”
Hinshaw said it’s hard to determine the exact causes of the increase in substance use and deaths related to substance use.
“We know that when we went through our spring restrictions and we closed down access to multiple services, that there was a question about whether or not some of those restrictions could have possibly acerbated or made it harder for people who needed help to get it.”
“We have been very intentional in our most recent round of restrictions to ensure that access to the full spectrum of services that individuals who are experiencing substance-use issues need… that we are not restricting those activities or services.
“But it is very challenging to know what exactly all the causes are,” she said.
“We did see a high number of deaths in July and then it has come down somewhat from then, although every death lost is a tragedy and preventable. And so we continue to watch this data to try and learn what we can from it and provide that full spectrum of services to those who need them.”
The new website will include statistics on all types of drugs, including prescribed drugs. That data will not include incidents of suicide; rather only unintentional acute poisoning deaths.
From July to October 2020, 443 people in Alberta died from apparent unintentional opioid poisoning. During the same time period, EMS responded to 2,118 opioid-related events.
A record number of community naloxone kits (27,641) were distributed in the third quarter of 2020.
Kenney said the opioid crisis has “impacted Indigenous Albertans disproportionately during the pandemic.” He said opioid-related fatalities of First Nation individuals increased 61 per cent since 2019, compared to the first six months of 2020.
“There is clearly much more that must be done,” the premier said.
The substance-use website was created using in-house staff and used a licence that the government already had so it was developed at no additional cost.
The data comes from a variety of sources, including the office of the chief medical examiner, community organizations like those that distribute Naloxone, Alberta Health Services and treatment programs.
Albertans struggling with addiction can contact the Addiction Helpline at 1-866-332-2322 for support, information and referral to services. The toll-free, confidential helpline operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.