The number of deaths related to opioid overdoses in Alberta doubled in the three months after physical-distancing rules reduced traffic at supervised drug-consumption sites, according to provincial statistics.
Opioid overdoses, which reached a record high in the second quarter, have killed more people in Alberta this year than the coronavirus, while receiving a fraction of the attention from the government and the public. Experts say Alberta’s decision to report overdose deaths quarterly, rather than more frequently, throughout the pandemic contributes to the drug crisis because it keeps the issue out of the public eye.
Jason Luan, Alberta’s Associate Minister for Mental Health and Addictions, noted in a statement that the spike in overdose deaths coincides with an increase in stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. His statement does not mention that access to supervised consumption sites, where people can use drugs under the supervision of health-care workers, has been severely curtailed since the middle of March.
“The past few months have led to increased fear and anxiety, isolation, disruption to in-person services, job uncertainty and more,” Mr. Luan’s statement said. “This has exacerbated the struggles of many Albertans, including those struggling with substance use.”
Alberta counted 301 deaths tied to opioid overdoses in April, May and June, according a report released on Wednesday. This is 42 per cent more than the previous high of 211 deaths in the third quarter of 2018, and more than double the 148 opioid-related deaths in the first quarter of 2020. Meanwhile, COVID-19 has killed 260 people in Alberta.
Alberta tallied 40,755 visits to its supervised consumption sites in Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge and Grande Prairie, and Red Deer’s overdose prevention facility, in the second quarter, according to the government report. In the first quarter of the year, the province recorded 114,430 visits. (Physical-distancing measures that reduced capacity at the sites began near the end of March, which would have dragged down the number for the first quarter.)
Other jurisdictions have more timely reporting, notably British Columbia, which on Wednesday released data for August.
The number of deaths in that province related to fentanyl or its analogues so far this year surpasses last year’s total. B.C. releases its overdose data every month, and Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry last week signed an order to expand the availability of safer drugs.
Jason Mercredi, the executive director of Prairie Harm Reduction, said not releasing timely overdose data undermines any progress made to combat the crisis by keeping the topic quiet.
“If this was any other health issue, we’d be having press conferences weekly,” he said. “If this was diabetes, if this was cancer, if this was COVID, we’d be seeing a lot more resources and effort.”
In June, Alberta said it would soon release a real-time tracking system for overdoses. Kassandra Kitz, a spokeswoman for Mr. Luan, on Wednesday said the government has not nailed down a launch date. The government has said it did not release overdose information monthly because it would be preliminary. Alberta, like other provinces, publishes daily statistics on COVID-19 and adjusts them when necessary.
Elaine Hyshka, a professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta, noted that facilities and organizations designed to stem the overdose crisis have not received extra cash for the pandemic.
“Harm reduction service providers are scrambling to respond to both the overdose epidemic and COVID-19, and they are doing it with even less resources than they’ve had before," she said. Prof. Hyshka said that while the Alberta government has spent more money in the addictions and mental health system, the programs receiving new funding do not address opioid disorders and are unlikely to reduce the overdose death rate.
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