More than 900 Albertans died from opioid poisoning in first 10 months of 2020

New data released by the Alberta government Friday show Alberta is on track for a record-breaking number of opioid deaths in 2020.

Information published on a new government substance abuse surveillance website also shows how profoundly the COVID-19 pandemic has affected people’s ability to manage their addictions.

“For people who suffer addictions and mental health illness, it just made their life even more difficult,” said Jason Luan, associate minister of mental health and addictions, in a Thursday interview.

In the first 10 months of 2020, 904 people died of opioid poisoning in Alberta — more than the total in any year since tracking began in 2016.

In July, Alberta had a record high 142 opioid-related deaths. By October, the monthly death toll had decreased to 94, which is still higher than the average before the pandemic reached Alberta in March.

Luan said his heart sank when he saw the most recent numbers.

“Every life lost is too many,” he said. “Those are the people who are family members, colleagues, members of our community. It’s awful.”

Alberta is no outlier — the phenomenon has been seen across the country.

Before the virus that causes COVID-19 arrived in the province, the government data show that the grip of the opioid crisis was loosening. In 2019, the number of fatal overdoses began to decrease, and the number of emergency medical services calls involving opioids was dropping.

In March, those downward trends reversed sharply. At the same time, attendance at supervised consumption sites in Edmonton, Calgary, Grande Prairie, Lethbridge and Red Deer began to plummet. Those services were subject to occupancy limits during the first wave of the pandemic in the spring. 

Pandemic restrictions limited addictions help

Public health guidelines to keep people apart also limited the number of people who could enrol in in-patient addictions recovery programs. Alberta’s chief medical health officer later approved unique pandemic operating rules for these facilities.

People enrolled in harm reduction programs and receiving prescribed opioid replacement therapies stopped coming to the clinics and taking their medication, and their use of illegal street drugs jumped, the data show.

Initially, public health rules prevented support groups like Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous from holding indoor meetings. Those meetings are now allowed, with masks and physical distancing in place.

Luan said services have now adapted, offering virtual therapy and counselling sessions around the clock.

The government has pledged $140 million for mental health and addictions programs during its four-year mandate, including $40 million for tackling opioid addictions.

Some of the funding has gone to community groups that work with specific demographics, such as seniors, Indigenous people and new immigrants.

Now that COVID-19 cases have risen across Alberta, prompting four weeks of stricter limits on gatherings during the holiday season, Luan said he hopes the changes they’ve made since spring will reduce any second wave of substance abuse deaths.

“Yes, we need to isolate the virus, but we don’t need to socially isolate ourselves,” he said, noting people are “using all kinds of creative ways to continue to make that kind of social connection.”

More information now online

With the Friday launch of the Alberta Substance Use Surveillance System, the provincial government has changed how it reports opioid deaths.

The publicly available website will now update new data monthly, rather than every three months. It has grown to include information on people who died from alcohol poisoning and other substance misuse.

Users can look at data from nine publicly run opioid treatment clinics and look up ambulance calls, emergency room visits, hospitalizations and deaths by urban centre.

Graphs show how frequently different substances were found in people who died from overdoses.

Eventually, the government intends to add data on residential addictions treatment centres to the dashboard. Users would be able to see how many treatment spaces are available and how many participants have completed publicly funded programs.

Luan said he hopes it will allow the government and the public to quickly see whether their policy decisions are effective, or whether they need to change course.

He said it’s the most detailed and comprehensive public data set in the country, and challenged other provinces to match it.

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