Three deaths in downtown Edmonton on Friday have prompted an urgent call to action in response to the overdose crisis.
“We’re heartbroken by what transpired here on Friday, the loss of three of our community members, all of whom were known to us, and they were all really wonderful souls who will be deeply missed,” said Boyle Street Community Services executive director Jordan Reiniger.
“This is the latest shocking incident in a trend that we’re seeing of significant number of overdoses across the city at all our sites.
“We’re here to ask for action.”
The social agency is calling on government and community partners, including Edmonton Police Service, Alberta Health and Alberta Health Services, to help create an emergency coordinated response to the overdose crisis.
Boyle Street is calling for better access to strong (and timely) data on overdoses. Reiniger said data on overdoses tends to lag by a few months and is not specific to location.
Boyle Street is also calling for a coordinated response (command centre) involving various agencies, Alberta Health, AHS, police and the provincial government, since the health portfolio is a provincial responsibility. Reiniger would also like to see all front-line social workers have access to Naloxone kits and more outreach programming.
“It’s not difficult to mobilize those resources, we just need to coordinate them and have the urgency to do it,” he said.
Reiniger said he had conversations with government officials on Friday night and they agreed action was needed.
“There is a plan to meet at some point,” he said. “It’s getting out of control.”
“There’s a number of things we can do immediately. We need to do those things urgently to save lives now and reduce the amount of death that’s happening,” Reiniger said.
Overdose deaths nearly doubled in Edmonton in 2020, according to Boyle Street, rising from 267 in 2019 to 485 in 2020. Data indicates they’re rising again this year.
“Year over year there’s been about a 100 per cent increase in the number of overdose deaths,” Reiniger said on Tuesday.
“This last incident, I think, is just the tip of the iceberg.”
On Friday, Edmonton police said multiple bodies were found in the city’s core but explained the deaths were not believed to be criminal.
AHS said paramedics were called to the scene and tried to resuscitate the three people, but they were declared dead at the scene.
An Alberta government statement released Saturday said the three individuals died of an “apparent overdose.”
Boyle Street’s overdose response team was also there, Reiniger said, and, while they’ve been responding to more overdose calls these last 15 months, three people at one time was shocking.
“It’s a really gruesome and difficult thing… It was the final straw for us.”
“The opioid crisis is raging and it’s getting worse. And there’s no coordinated robust community response plan. We need to respond as a community. Enough is enough.”
On Friday, Samantha Waskahat was sitting just a few benches away from the three individuals when first responders arrived.
“I thought they were sleeping but when the peace officers walked by, they were doing CPR and stuff,” she said, through tears. “If I knew, I would have done something.
“I just want to tell everybody out there: don’t do drugs. It’s bad out there… It’s scary.”
There are long-term approaches that will help too, according to Boyle Street, the biggest one is addressing homelessness. But right now, the organization is focused on an urgent overdose emergency response.
“It’s gut wrenching. Our teams on the front line are dealing with this on a daily basis — where people are experiencing overdose,” Reiniger said. “They’re having to respond and administer Naloxone. In many cases, that is a life-saving treatment… and in many cases, it’s not.
“We do see death regularly. It’s traumatic.”
He said the agency is seeing the trend at all its sites across the city.
“With our children and family programming, with our youth programming, and of course with the adult populations that we serve,” Reiniger said.
“I don’t think we’ve experienced it to be worse than it is right now.”
“Most of the people that we’re supporting, we know them, so we have relationships with them. These are human beings and these are lives being lost in great numbers.”
Office of the Chief Medical Examiner will not share any information on the causes or manners of these deaths.
In a statement Tuesday, a spokesperson for the minister of Mental Health and Addictions said:
“Our deepest condolences go out to the families and loved ones of the three individuals who died in Edmonton over the weekend. Alberta’s government is currently engaging with impacted stakeholders, including the Edmonton Police Services.
“Pandemic-related measures continue to take a toll on people struggling with addiction.
“We are committed to a high quality and easily accessible system of care for both mental health and addiction that includes a full continuum of supports, including services to reduce harm. Albertans deserve no less. People struggling with an addiction illness deserve no less.”
“We continue to provide services like increasing the booth capacity at the George Spady supervised consumption site, which is across the street from Boyle Street’s facility. We also turned this into a 24/7 operation.
“We have made investments in opioid agonist therapies, medical detox, supportive recovery, and residential addiction treatment, as well as investments in opioid dependency clinics and virtual opioid dependency programs, which currently has no wait list. This program supplies evidence-based medications like Suboxone and Methodone.
“Alberta has achieved the highest rate of dispensing of these medications in the history of the province, as well as the highest rate of distributing naloxone on record.”