COVID-19 pandemic having ‘stark affects’ on opioid-related deaths in Alberta

The number of people who have died of opioid overdoses in Alberta between April and June this year is more than any three-month period recorded in the last four years, and the province says the COVID-19 pandemic has played a role in the increase.

The province released new numbers Wednesday which show 301 people died of an unintentional opioid poisoning between April 2020 and June 2020 — after the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Previously, the highest number of opioid-related deaths recorded in a three-month period in Alberta was 211, according to numbers in the province’s Q2 Opioid Response Surveillance Report which date back to 2015.

Credit, COVID-19 Opioid Response Surveillance Report
Credit, COVID-19 Opioid Response Surveillance Report. Credit, COVID-19 Opioid Response Surveillance Report

The province said the report “highlights the stark affects that COVID-19 has had when it comes to unintentional opioid poisoning.”

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“The past few months have led to increased fear and anxiety, isolation, disruption to in-person services, job uncertainty and more. This has exacerbated the struggles of many Albertans, including those struggling with substance use,” Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jason Luan said in a media release.

Read more: Canada’s other health-care crisis: the epidemic of fatal drug overdoses

The report outlined how business closures earlier this year caused “profound challenges” for all Albertans, but noted vulnerable populations — including those with substance-use issues — faced even more adversity accessing the supports and services they depend on. The report noted that led to increased stress and anxiety.

“Beginning in March 2020, the number of harms associated with opioid use began to increase significantly, reaching record levels not previously seen,” the report reads. “This sharp rise was in conjunction with a decrease in the utilization of treatment and harm-reduction services.”

Read more: Coronavirus: Ontario opioid crisis worsens during pandemic as services for drug users scale back

The associate minister said Alberta is not the only province seeing a spike in opioid deaths amid the pandemic.

“Alberta is not alone in this reality — British Columbia has reported similar findings and trends during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we anticipate similar findings in other jurisdictions, such as Ontario, which is in the preliminary stages of reporting,” Luan said.

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Opioid crisis worsened during COVID-19 pandemic

Opioid crisis worsened during COVID-19 pandemic

Drastic drop in use of supervised consumption services

The report also pointed to a drastic drop in the number of visits to supervised consumption sites in the second quarter of 2020 compared to the first quarter.

Between April and June 2020, there were 40,755 visits to supervised consumption sites in Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge and Grande Prairie, and to the Red Deer overdose prevention site.

In the previous quarter, there were 114,430 visits to these sites.

The Opposition NDP’s critic for mental health and addiction said the numbers are shocking and called the deaths preventable.

“More Albertans have died from an opioid overdose in the last three months than in the entirety of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Heather Sweet said in a media release.

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Read more: Illicit drug deaths in B.C. higher than homicides, car crashes, suicide, COVID-19 combined: report

As of Tuesday afternoon, 258 COVID-19 related deaths have been recorded in Alberta.

“The single most important responsibility of any government is to protect human life,” Sweet said. “But this government is turning away from scientific evidence and medical best practices and returning to a failed ‘War On Drugs’ approach.

“Every one of those deaths was preventable if there had been someone in the room or on the phone to call for help. Every one of those Albertans leaves behind grieving family and friends.”

Sweet also pointed to the closure of the supervised consumption site in Lethbridge, which was shuttered in August after the province announced it would be pulling funding due to an audit earlier this year that suggested public money had been mismanaged.

The first 6 months of 2020

In the first six months of 2020, 449 people died in Alberta from an unintentional opioid poisoning, or an average of 2.5 deaths every day.

That’s compared to 350 opioid-related deaths in Alberta in the first half of 2019, 400 deaths in the first half of 2018, 321 deaths in the first six months of 2017 and 251 deaths in the first half of 2016.

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Read more: More Canadians are dying of drug overdoses — and coronavirus is to blame

Of the deaths reported so far this year, 79 per cent of the victims have been men. The age group to see the highest proportion of deaths was 35 to 39 among men and 30 to 34 among women.

Credit, COVID-19 Opioid Response Surveillance Report
Credit, COVID-19 Opioid Response Surveillance Report. Credit, COVID-19 Opioid Response Surveillance Report

The province said Wednesday it is committed to ensuring all Albertans have access to the support they need. The province pointed to $53 million in funding announced earlier this year to enhance online, phone and in-person mental health and addiction recovery supports during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Every life lost to addiction is one too many. I encourage anyone impacted by substance use, whether a loved one or yourself, to reach out for support,” Luan said.

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Alberta’s 24/7 Addiction Helpline can be reached at 1-866-332-2322.

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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