Over­doses in­creased as pan­demic hit

HUN­DREDS DIED FROM OPIOID OVER­DOSES IN PROV­INCE AS COVID-19 PAN­DEMIC SPREAD

Lethbridge Herald - - Front Page - Co­lette Der­woriz THE CANA­DIAN PRESS — ED­MON­TON

Alberta Health says 449 peo­ple died from opioid over­doses in the prov­ince dur­ing the first six months of this year.

The num­bers, which were re­leased Wed­nes­day in the sec­ond-quar­ter Opioid Re­sponse Sur­veil­lance Re­port, show 301 of those deaths hap­pened be­tween April and June 2020.

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

Ja­son Luan, as­so­ciate min­is­ter of Men­tal Health and Ad­dic­tions, said in a news re­lease that the COVID-19 pan­demic has led to in­creased fear and anx­i­ety, iso­la­tion and job un­cer­tainty.

“This has ex­ac­er­bated the strug­gles of many Al­ber­tans, in­clud­ing those strug­gling with sub­stance use,” he said.

Luan said the prov­ince is not alone in see­ing a rise in deaths, not­ing Bri­tish Columbia also re­ported sim­i­lar find­ings and trends dur­ing the first few months of the pan­demic.

Elaine Hyshka, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at the School of Public Health at the Univer­sity of Alberta, said she ex­pected to see more deaths in Alberta based on trends in other prov­inces, but not so many more.

“To see 301 deaths in a three-month pe­riod is stag­ger­ing,” said Hyshka, not­ing the pre­vi­ous record in the prov­ince was 211 deaths in three months.

She said COVID-19 is def­i­nitely play­ing a role.

“We’ve heard and seen grow­ing ev­i­dence of dis­rup­tions in il­le­gal drug sup­ply in terms of bor­der clo­sures and other fac­tors that are lead­ing to more dan­ger­ous drugs for sale on the streets,” she said. “We’ve also seen re­duc­tions in the num­ber of peo­ple seek­ing care in harm re­duc­tion ser­vices and treat­ment clin­ics.”

She added, how­ever, that the Alberta gov­ern­ment has also shifted away from a co-or­di­nated public health re­sponse to the over­dose epi­demic.

“I worry that the im­pacts that that has had on harm re­duc­tion ser­vices like su­per­vised con­sump­tion sites, on treat­ment pro­grams — is also tak­ing a toll,” said Hyshka.

“These deaths are 100 per cent preventabl­e.”

The Op­po­si­tion NDP said the dra­matic rise in the num­ber of preventabl­e deaths in 2020 re­verses a down­ward trend from the mid­dle of 2018.

“These are shock­ing num­bers,” Heather Sweet, the critic for men­tal health and ad­dic­tion, said in a state­ment. “More Al­ber­tans have died from an opioid over­dose in the last three months than in the en­tirety of the COVID-19 pan­demic.”

Alberta Health has re­ported a to­tal of 260 deaths from the novel coro­n­avirus.

Sweet said the sin­gle most im­por­tant re­spon­si­bil­ity of any gov­ern­ment is to pro­tect hu­man life, but Alberta’s United Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment “is turn­ing away from sci­en­tific ev­i­dence and med­i­cal best prac­tices and re­turn­ing to a failed ‘War on Drugs’ ap­proach.”

Luan said the gov­ern­ment’s fo­cus on re­cov­ery-ori­ented ser­vices seemed to be hav­ing a pos­i­tive im­pact prior to the pan­demic and noted it has since put money into men­tal health and ad­dic­tion re­cov­ery sup­ports.

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