Deaths from fentanyl, other opioids in Alberta increase to record high as major consumption site shutters
By Noel Harper, News Editor
The Alberta government released its latest report on the use of opioids in the province in late September — its first report on the topic published during the COVID-19 pandemic, thus titled the COVID-19 Opioid Response Surveillance Report — and the numbers within demonstrate a worrying trend.
Data compiled during the second quarter of this year, from April to June, shows 301 deaths relating to opioids during the three-month period. In contrast, 148 Albertans died of an opioid overdose during the first three months of 2020.
This amounts to the largest quarterly increase of opioid deaths in the province since 2016, when data was first compiled on the subject. The majority of these occurred in the Calgary zone, where there were 119 deaths due to poisoning from fentanyl and other opioids. 105 overdose deaths occurred in the Edmonton zone.
Fentanyl is a pain-relieving medication that has been found to be more potent than morphine or heroin. Of all the overdoses that took place during the second quarter, 284 of the 301 overdoses were linked to fentanyl use. Between April and June, 21 overdoses were the result of carfentanil specifically, a member of the fentanyl family that is thousands of times more potent than morphine.
Of fentanyl-related deaths in 2020, 79 per cent have been male, with the highest overall number of fentanyl overdoses — combining both male and female deaths — occurring within the age group of 35 to 39 years.
The report on Alberta’s opioid crisis helped to put another ongoing crisis in perspective. Since the start of the pandemic, 261 Albertans have died from COVID-19 as of this writing, whereas 449 deaths resulted from apparent unintentional opioid poisoning so far this year.
“Prior to the pandemic, the province’s focus on recovery-oriented services seemed to be having a positive impact,” said Jason Luan, Alberta’s associate minister of mental health and addictions, in a statement on the report.
“As we move forward, it is more important than ever to continue to ensure every Albertan who needs it can find help and be supported on their path to long-term recovery.”
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, responded to the report during a COVID-19 briefing saying, “It can’t be ignored that deaths rose during the first few months of the pandemic, which we know caused challenges for many Albertans.”
The effects the closure of one of Alberta’s main safe consumption sites has had on the number of overdose deaths in the province has yet to be seen by provincial data.
ARCHES, a Lethbridge-based non-profit that runs the city’s safe consumption site, will cease to provide supervised consumption services at the end of September. The closure is a result of provincial funding being pulled from the site following the results of a financial audit earlier this year.
Leading up to ARCHES’ departure from the city, Lethbridge is already experiencing the highest rate of fentanyl-related overdoses in the province. With 21 deaths from fentanyl so far in 2020, this resulted in a rate of 42.4 per 100,000 persons. The highest number of fentanyl-related deaths this year have taken place within Calgary, with 148.
Lethbridge also saw the highest number of EMS responses for opioid-related issues in Q2, while seeing a 79 per cent decrease in visits to its consumption site in the most recent quarter compared to the start of 2020.
Weeks after the site’s closure was announced, an unofficial consumption site was set up in Lethbridge by volunteers, in an effort to replace the services of ARCHES. Minister Luan decreed the site as illegal and referred users to government-sanctioned overdose prevention sites.
626 Albertans died from opioid use in 2019. 3,139 people in the province have died of opioid overdose since the start of 2016.