Alberta is putting lives at risk by not quickly reporting statistics about overdose fatalities during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to experts who say even preliminary monthly data would help officials better understand the effect of the pandemic on vulnerable people and how they could prevent more deaths.
The province releases quarterly reports on opioid overdoses – fatal and non-fatal – two or three months after the relevant quarter ends. This means information about opioid-related deaths in May, for example, is not available until August or September.
Evidence suggests the COVID-19 crisis is making illicit drug use especially dangerous. There is less access to supervised consumption sites, for example. In Alberta, 911 calls and visits to emergency departments for opioid-related reasons are climbing. The government is warning people about carfentanil on Edmonton’s streets. But hard evidence – the death toll – is unavailable, making it difficult to react with precision during the pandemic.
British Columbia, which reports monthly results, said May was its deadliest month on record for illicit drug users.
“It couldn’t be more urgent,” said Haley Hrymak, a lawyer at Rise Women’s Legal Centre in Vancouver who studied the opioid crisis when she completed a master’s degree in law. “What that data could tell us is really how to respond now, within a changing world.”
Tom McMillan, a spokesman for Alberta Health, on Monday said the government is building a new system for faster reporting of drug-related overdose deaths and other information.
“The challenge is that the various data sources that track and verify this information are updated at differing time periods. We want to ensure that information is both accurate and as timely as possible,” he said in a statement.
“Several options for more timely reporting were being considered when COVID-19 arrived in Alberta. The pandemic has recently been the primary focus of the Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health.”
That office, led by Deena Hinshaw, is aiming for the new system to be in place by the next quarterly reporting cycle in late summer, if not sooner, Mr. McMillan said. It will include monthly breakdowns, when possible.
Rebeccah Rosenblum, an emergency department doctor at Edmonton’s Royal Alexandra Hospital, believes neither the pandemic nor the complexities of investigating deadly overdoses are reason enough for the government to hold back preliminary monthly data.
“It seems that there’s been enormous resources invested and mobilized to address the needs of almost every other sector of society during the pandemic, so why not this particular patient population?” she said.
The government’s current quarterly reports do not provide monthly information. However, the office of Jason Luan, the associate minister of Mental Health and Addictions, told The Globe and Mail there were 43 opioid-related overdose deaths in January, 39 in February, and 60 in March, when supervised consumption sites had to limit occupancy because of physical distancing rules.
Marshall Smith, chief of staff for Mr. Luan, said the government is moving away from quarterly reporting toward a “real-time, online, interactive system.”
Kassandra Kitz, a spokeswoman for Mr. Luan, on Thursday said the department anticipates the pandemic will “impact on the overall substance use, addiction and overdose numbers.
But, she said, “it’s too early to be reporting on incomplete numbers for April and May,” noting this information will come in the next quarterly report.
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