Alberta will immediately make available an extra 2,000 antidote kits for the drug fentanyl and have new rules in place before the end of the year to allow first responders to administer the potentially life-saving treatment.
Alberta Health Minister Sarah Hoffman outlined her response to a public-health crisis caused by illicit use of the drug while speaking with The Globe and Mail on Tuesday. She promised a faster response to the abuse of fentanyl, which was responsible for 213 deaths in Alberta over the first nine months of this year.
The province distributed 3,000 kits containing naloxone, the antidote to fentanyl, throughout the year. Available from health groups in eight cities, the kits have also gone out to some First Nations who have requested them. The additional 2,000 doses will help ensure that Albertans at risk of dying from an overdose will have access to the antidote, the minister said.
"It is not a simple solution. We're working on distributing those 2,000 kits, and honestly, if demand grows, we will react. It's good news that people who are likely to overdose will now have an increased opportunity for that one last hope," Ms. Hoffman said from her office in Edmonton.
The province's health authorities have posted stark notices over the past year warning Albertans about the dangers of fentanyl. The drug, developed to treat extreme pain, is 100 times more potent than morphine. A dose as small as two grains of sand can be lethal. Many of the pills seized on the streets of Alberta's largest cities over the past year were manufactured by organized crime and were found to contain far more than the lethal dose.
Fentanyl is fast-acting and can create a sense of euphoria, but also causes users to slip in and out of consciousness. A user can die within 15 minutes of consuming too much of it.
Health experts predict more Albertans will die from abusing the drug this year than from motor vehicle accidents.
On Sunday, The Globe revealed that Ms. Hoffman had received a report on Nov. 23 from the co-chairs of Alberta's Mental Health Review calling on her department to take immediate steps to combat the growing number of deaths from abusing fentanyl.
The report's first recommendation said the province should immediately remove rules that forbid many first responders from administering naloxone. Paramedics are currently the only class of first responders allowed to inject the antidote. While Rachel Notley's New Democrats are looking to amend Alberta's Health Professions Act in the spring and allow more first responders to administer naloxone, Ms. Hoffman told The Globe she will act sooner.
"While the legislation won't come through traditional channels until the spring, I think that's too long," she said. "Things move slower than I would like them to; I want to do this before the end of the year. I want to do this as soon as possible. The faster we act, the better."
The rules have created a situation in which emergency medical technicians and police officers are barred from administering an antidote that the government is making freely available to Albertans.
Because paramedics are limited to Alberta's largest cities, most responders on First Nations and in isolated areas of the province cannot use the antidote.
Alberta's opposition parties have criticized the slowness of the NDP's response to the crisis. Mike Ellis, a Progressive Conservative MLA and former Calgary police officer, has emerged as his party's leading voice on fentanyl.
"The minister's plan needs to occur and it needs to occur right now. I'm not sure what the holdup is here. We are talking about saving lives versus allowing another Albertan to die. To me that's a pretty simple choice," he said.
Jason Nixon, the Wildrose opposition's whip, said Ms. Hoffman has been "dragging her feet."
The minister says her office will look at more ways to respond to the crisis, including working closely with her federal counterpart. Also, a new fentanyl response team will have its first meeting on Wednesday via a teleconference with the health minister's deputy. The team will bring together the province's health service, representatives of First Nations and the Métis, police officers and federal officials.
The NDP's latest budget added $10-million for mental health and addiction services over the remainder of the fiscal year. Part of the money will go to paying for new antidote kits.