National Post (Latest Edition)
Opioid deaths outpace COVID-19 in Alberta in 2020
‘Addiction rampage’ just as unpredictable
There have been 261 deaths in Alberta from COVID-19 in 2020 — and 449 deaths from opioid overdoses between January and June. In statistical terms, that amounts to two- and- a- half people overdosing per day — a trend that the province’s addictions minister says has been significantly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Every loss of life is too many ... I feel awful, but in the meantime it also gives me motivation,” said Jason Luan, Alberta’s associate minister of addictions and mental health, in an interview Monday morning. “There’s no one solution that can combat this crisis, we must take a multipillar co-ordinated approach.”
Luan said there are numerous supports in place in the province, right now, in the wake of a new quarterly report that has some questioning whether or not the government’s approach is working. There were two consecutive quarters, prior to last week’s second- quarter report, showing a decline in opioid deaths in Alberta.
“Nobody expected COVID-19 to hit us all ... it limited people’s access to the services that their lives depend on,” said Luan.
The pandemic, the second-quarter report notes, made it more difficult for some people to access addiction-related services they depend upon, although emergency services remained available. Indeed, hospitalization rates from overdoses climbed from 2,472 in the first quarter to 3,028 in the second quarter.
This is reflected in other figures: 86 per cent of those following methadone treatment programs stuck with it in March; by April, it dropped to 52.6 per cent, and then climbed back up to 86 per cent by June. The report notes that there was a major decrease in accessing in-person treatment between March and April in the pandemic.
“That has a significant impact to what will happen to them,” Luan said.
Luan pointed to multiple measures that are still underway: clean needles, naloxone kits, overdose prevention sites, peer support groups, and so on.
“When people suffer from addiction, everybody knows the reason they’re addicted is it’s beyond their personal control, we must help them, support them in a way to get out of this, rather than just let that addiction rampage,” Luan said.
The opioid crisis has been a challenging one for the United Conservative government. They’ve spent $ 40 million directly on the crisis, as well as spending on various programs from funding new detox beds, to mental health supports and phone services.
But, to the outrage of some critics, they are also ending a pilot program of injectable opioid agonists — drugs that counteract the effects of opioid withdrawal — and transitioning those in the program onto other treatments.
And, unlike in British Columbia, Alberta has eschewed providing a safer drug supply. The provincial government has argued there really isn’t such a thing as a “safer drug supply.” Instead, Luan and his government has been championing a “continuum of care” to get addicts into recovery.
“To me, that’s the most common sense approach, that every Albertan — you don’t need a degree to figure out that’s how you’re going to treat your loved ones if they happen to need support,” said Luan. “You open the door, and then you can do the rest.”
Luan calls the government’s approach a broader, more ordered and less chaotic approach, that weighs more toward harm reduction.
“It’s a destructive, miserable life, we need to get them out of there, that has to be the main focus here. You can’t confuse people by saying ‘ It’s OK, carry on, we’ll make it easy for you,’” said Luan.
Just three weeks after the government pulled funding for a Lethbridge supervised- consumption site — following an audit that showed financial mismanagement — an illegal supervised-consumption site opened in a downtown park. Luan told local media outlets he expected the city to enforce the law.
The province has done a review of legal consumption sites across the province: Luan is reviewing the recommendations of the committee, and told the Post on Monday that each city site will be considered on an individual basis.
Of the 449 opioid deaths in the second- quarter report, 414 of them were due to fentanyl overdoses — the majority in larger urban centres such as Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge. As well, the report notes that 82 per cent of opioid deaths had another drug contributing, the most usual one, apparent in 58 per cent of those cases, was methadone, followed by cocaine.
Those stark statistics and drug combinations are another reason for the broader, continuum- of- care approach. “We cannot focus on the drug supply, we must focus on the mind, body and spirit of persons that are stuck in addictions.”