Spiking overdose deaths and inaction by the Alberta government have prompted a group of Edmonton physicians to form an opioid poisoning committee to address the escalating crisis.
The Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association said the committee will advocate for people who use drugs, recommend short- and long-term strategies to reduce overdose deaths and raise public awareness.
Committee member Dr. Stan Houston, a professor of medicine and public health at the University of Alberta, said the drug poisoning crisis is not being treated with the same urgency as COVID-19, despite parallels in deaths and impact to the community.
While resources and public information were ramped up to address COVID, the province stripped harm reduction supports aimed at preventing overdose fatalities, he said Thursday.
“There’s just no way this discrepancy can be justified on grounds of justice or on the grounds of public health and that’s a large part of why we’re here today. There is an urgent need for Alberta to implement the kinds of measures that have been shown elsewhere to be effective at saving lives,” said Houston.
“As the provincial government has continued to mention, treatment for substance use disorders is an important part of the package, but you can’t take advantage of treatment unless you’re alive. And unless you have made a connection with trusted care providers.”
Under Premier Jason Kenney, access to a life-saving opioid dependency program and supervised drug-use sites has been restricted as the government focuses on recovery.
Eric Engler, press secretary to Alberta’s associate minister of mental health and addictions, rejected claims the government is not addressing the crisis appropriately.
“Alberta’s government is leading the country helping people access life-saving prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery resources,” said Engler in a statement. He listed some initiatives by the government, including spending on recovery communities and naloxone distribution.
With an average of four Albertans dying per day from accidental drug poisonings, the group said there is a need for leadership that is not influenced by politics or stigma.
Intensive care physician Dr. Darren Markland said he has been forced to explore his own prejudices when it comes to drug-related admissions.
He recalled a time when two 17-year-old patients were admitted to his intensive care unit. A teenager receiving treatment for alcohol poisoning received “automatic empathy” while the other patient, needing urgent care for a severe drug overdose, did not.
“His family cared for him just as much. The tears were just as wet. The sorrow was just as palpable and yet there was a coldness,” Markland said during the Thursday committee announcement.
“There was a wall between myself and nursing staff, as this poor family was almost ostracized from the same empathy that we provided the other 17-year-old.”
He said his role within the committee is a “starting point” to realize his own prejudices and preconceptions so he can offer the best possible support for people who need care as a result of drug use.
The number and severity of opioid poisonings is increasing in the Edmonton area, said emergency physician Dr. Jaspreet Khangra, who noted it’s affecting people of all ages and backgrounds.
“I want to dispel that myth that there’s a certain type of person who experiences opiate poisoning (or) opiate use disorders,” said Khangra. “Because of the stigma we often don’t know about the people whom it affects in our own lives until it’s too late.”
She noted Indigenous communities are disproportionately affected.
A multitude of treatment strategies must be made available to people who are using substances, including harm reduction supports, said Khangra. Too often she has seen clients face social and systemic barriers to receiving help, she added.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of Albertans dying as a result of overdose spiked with more than 1,300 deaths in 2020. Most fatalities involved opioids.
The committee said they will advocate for evidence-based information, government policy and health supports to reduce the number of deaths and adverse outcomes for people using drugs.