An opioid 100 times more deadly than fentanyl cuts a swath through Blood Tribe
A southern Alberta Indigenous community has been left reeling after carfentanil — an opioid 100 times more potent than fentanyl — has claimed the lives of four people and caused overdoses in nearly 47 others this month.
The numbers have stayed steady over the year on the Blood Tribe reserve, but have spiked in the past two months, Kevin Cowan, chief executive officer of the Blood Tribe Department of Health said.
“This has been a tough year for the Blood Tribe … but the problem is escalating,” he said.
“In October, there were 37 overdoses attended to by our emergency services. There was one death.
“If this was three or four years ago, there would’ve been 47 deaths this month, not 47 overdoses.”
A state of emergency was declared for the Blood Tribe after 36 opioid overdoses and one death occurred between Feb. 23 and March 25 this year, Cowan said.
Since then, Cowan said, they have averaged roughly 20 overdoses per month. Just last week, 22 people suffered overdoses between Tuesday and Thursday alone.
Cowan said the three ambulance crews have been overwhelmed by the rise in overdoses, and one crew found four overdose patients who split one tablet.
All the departments on the reserve have come together, Cowan said, and assembled a plan of action to attack the crisis centred around a funding request for a safe withdrawal management site.
However, Cowan said they’re already moving forward with the plan.
“Currently our EMS staff administer (opioid overdose antidote) Naloxone, take them to a local hospital but they are then quickly released,” he said.
“Typically, they enter the same pattern and overdose again. Bringing them to the hospital is not working for us, for the community.”
The Blood Tribe Police Service along with Calgary police and RCMP seized 202 suspected carfentanil pills, with an estimated street value of over $16,000 in July 2018.
The new plan will see EMS staff take overdose patients directly to the transition program.
“We believe it’s the first time in Canada this has been done. We will have our EMS staff … man a program 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said.
“They’ll be here to accept the calls. (Patients) will be kept for 10-14 days, our physicians will administer an opioid replacement like Suboxone and work with our addictions and mental health staff.
“Hopefully then, we can move them onto a transition society.”
A doctor on the reserve, Esther Tailfeathers, said carfentanil is being mixed in with other drugs and sold on the streets.
“We thought we stopped seeing a spike in overdoses on Sunday, but apparently there have been a few overdoses today,” said Tailfeathers on Tuesday afternoon, adding there’s been a surge in crystal meth usage.
“It’s been a rough two weeks. Everyone is tired. All of the frontline workers are really tired, EMS, police. Even our emergency room in Cardston has seen an escalating number of overdoses.
“We’re dealing with a lot of grief on our reserve. We’ve got a number of kids that have been taken into the child welfare system because their parents have died.”
Officials on the reserve have been going door-to-door with Naloxone kits to give to residents and when it comes to carfentanil overdoses, Tailfeathers said they need more and more to curb the effects.
“Usually, the Naloxone kits have three vials of 0.4 (mg/ml) of Naloxone in the vials, but it has been taking six to eight vials of Naloxone to revive some patients,” Tailfeathers said, adding the powerful carfentanil requires more of the overdose antidote.
The reserve is expecting another spike in overdoses on the weekend of Dec. 14, Tailfeathers said, due in part to residents receiving social assistance and tribe payments that week — an unfortunate correlation they have begun to identify.
“We’re recognizing when there is money in the community, dealers know that as well and they swoop into the community,” she said.
“They bring the really potent stuff in and they’re out of the community in hours. We start seeing overdoses almost immediately. Usually, middle of the month is social assistance (payment) day and we are expecting tribal distribution of $100 per person on Dec. 13.
“We know by now our spikes in overdoses are directly related to money in the community.”
At the end of the day, Tailfeathers said the reserve needs help.
“We’re calling on people and physicians off-reserve to help this crisis,” she said.
“I think the province needs to look at widening the scope of treatment programs.”
Request for comment from the Blood Tribe Police Service was not immediately returned.
St. Catherines Catholic Church and the St. Catherines Cemetery near Standoff Alberta were photographed on Wednesday March 25, 2015.
Dr. Esther Tailfeathers, a doctor on the Blood Reserve in Southern Alberta, looks out a window in the Standoff Health Clinic on Monday February 27, 2017.