A one-year pilot project will be launched in Edmonton in response to the overdose crisis that will see $1.5 million spent on nasal naloxone kits and $2.1 million over three years for 35 additional medical detox beds.
Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jason Luan said starting June 15, people in Edmonton will have access to more nasal naloxone kits — which can reverse the effects of opioid overdose — at the George Spady Society.
As the pilot continues, more distribution sites will be added.
“Nasal naloxone is much easier to administer,” Luan said. “One nasal spray is approximately the same as five injectable naloxone kits.
“It can get the heart started and person breathing again so they can immediately seek emergency care.”
The additional kits will be added to the current capacity across the province. Since January 2016, 350,000 injectable naloxone kits have been supplied, the minister said.
Nearly 26,000 overdose reversals have been reported, Luan added.
Ginetta Salvalaggio, an Edmonton physician who specializes in addictions, said Alberta really needs an urgent and coordinated emergency response to overdose deaths.
“I’m a little underwhelmed, particularly with the nasal naloxone. This is not a new or innovative strategy; it’s tech. I think it’s a distraction; it’s not a coordinated response. It doesn’t really address the meat of the matter.”
She stressed, however, that any options for support are welcome.
“For people who are in a position where they can move forward with recovery, and it’s the right thing for them in that moment, what’s being proposed is helpful,” Salvalaggio said.
But, she said the UCP’s plan is an addictions recovery strategy, not an overdose emergency response. It won’t help people who are at risk of overdosing, homeless, lacking income or dealing with other challenges, like trauma, she said.
“It has to be very clear that we’re dealing with the public health emergency.”
Part of the immediate response should include bolstering supervised consumption services across the province, Salvalaggio said.
“We really still need as much supervised consumption capacity as we can muster.
“We have to reopen what we’ve lost, and we have to talk about pharmaceutical alternatives to the toxic street supply. There’s no amount of carfentanil seizures that’s going to get rid of the supply issue.”
The Opposition says the pilot project is insufficient and won’t do enough to address a province-wide health crisis.
“We know 123 people died in March from overdoses in Alberta, that’s 50 per cent more than last year,” said Lori Sigurdson, NDP addictions critic.
“This is a deadly crisis that needs immediate bold action with a strong emphasis on harm reduction.”
Sigurdson said the UCP is still actively closing supervised consumption services when they should be expanding them, especially in places like Lethbridge and Grande Prairie.
She also said the province needs a coordinated emergency plan.
Edmonton police chief Dale McFee said the EPS is looking forward to participating in the nasal naloxone pilot program.
“I’m eager to see the results of this initiative and how it will help prevent overdoses. We all need to work together to address the challenges faced by those with addictions in our city.”
First responders and community agencies will provide feedback on the pilot project and the province will consider “how we can roll this out over to a province-wide approach,” Luan said.
McFee said the two-initiative announcement from the province was a “positive and much-needed step forward” to the balanced approach that’s been “needed for quite some time.”
He added he’s looking forward to additional steps forward on the ground.
Wrap-around services available at the George Spady Society include a supervised consumption site, mental health, addiction and housing supports, as well as detox beds.
The Wednesday announcement will see Alberta invest $2.1 million over three years for the George Spady Society to open 35 medical detox beds.
Luan said those additional beds mean 4,550 Albertans will have the opportunity to receive medical detox support over the next three years.
The funds will help the agency add eight new medical detox beds and upgrade 27 existing social detox beds to now provide medical detox, a government spokesperson clarified.
Funding provided last year was for 27 social detox beds.
“This additional funding for George Spady is to shift the 27 existing beds from social detox to medical detox and add the eight new medical detox beds,” ministry spokesperson Justin Marshall told Global News.
“We are pleased that the George Spady Society will now have a full range of medical services available in our detox unit,” CEO Lorette Garrick said.
“The detox unit is unique as it’s in the same building as our supervised consumption site.
“This shift in our services gives us greater opportunity to support Albertans in achieving recovery,” she said.
“We are continuing to work with our community partners to support a full range of services in Edmonton.”
Naloxone will be distributed for free to those who are at risk of experiencing or witnessing an overdose.
McFee said the opioid crisis is a very significant concern.
“The urgent action that you’ve taken is very much appreciated by our front lines,” he told Luan.
“The opioid crisis doesn’t just affect individuals; it affects entire communities,” McFee said. “That’s something we’ve seen in the recent weeks.”
In May, an Edmonton social agency urged the province to act urgently to prevent more overdose deaths.
Boyle Street Community Services called on government and community partners — including the Edmonton Police Service, Alberta Health and Alberta Health Services — to help create an emergency coordinated response and command centre to the overdose crisis involving police, AHS and the provincial government, quicker and more fulsome data (including location information) on overdoses.
Boyle Street would also like to see all front-line social workers have access to naloxone kits and more outreach programming.
“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,” executive director Jordan Reiniger said on May 25, following three overdose deaths in downtown Edmonton on May 21.
On Wednesday, Luan thanked community groups for their advocacy on this complex issue.
“We very much appreciate the care and compassion many of our community and service providers have shown,” he said. “It’s encouraged us to work around the clock, non-stop to continue to build on the services and create new ways of doing things.”
He did not say if the province was considering Boyle Street’s other requests.
In a statement Wednesday, Boyle Street Community Services said it was pleased by the province’s two new initiatives.
“We commend the government for taking the overdose crisis seriously and for listening to the feedback we’re receiving from our workers at the frontline of this crisis,” Reiniger said.
Last week, the Boyle Street team responded to 10 overdoses before noon in a single day.
Reiniger said improving access to naloxone and detox beds is “an important first step” and the agency looks forward to more discussions “on coordinated, innovative and data-informed approaches to the overdose crisis.”
Alberta Health Services said, between May 31 and June 1, EMS responded to 55 opioid-related calls in the Edmonton zone. Naloxone was given during 50 of those incidents and EMS took 34 patients to hospital.
Overdose deaths nearly doubled in Edmonton in 2020, according to Boyle Street Community Services, 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.
McFee stressed Wednesday that a multi-pronged approach is essential.
“We will not arrest our way out of this crisis. What we’re seeing today is putting balance into the equation.”