The Alberta union representing many front-line health care workers spoke out in support of harm reduction work done by Red Deer’s Turning Point and other groups on International Overdose Awareness Day.
Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA) president Mike Parker called on the provincial government to expand overdose prevention programs that ease the burden on the health care system and save lives. This includes restarting some Safe Consumption Sites that were put on hold in 2020.
“Alberta is in the grasp of an overdose crisis,” said Parker, who noted that 1,758 people died of drug poisoning last year.
Parker noted HSAA members — paramedics, emergency communications officers and mental health and addictions workers — are on the front-line of this crisis.
“I can tell you we have paramedics spending entire shifts responding to back-to-back overdose calls and counsellors with caseloads outstretching their capacity.
“This government must immediately restart the harm reduction programs they cancelled and expand publicly delivered addiction services across Alberta. The current ‘recovery only’ approach taken by this government is not working to reverse the rising death roll,” said Parker.
Natasha Stagg, a registered nurse and clinical manager at Turning Point, also believes Red Deer would benefit from the opening of a Safe Consumption Site, which the provincial government shelved a few years ago.
She feels it would offer a continuum of care, adding to local overdose prevention and addictions treatment.
“We are grateful for the increasing access to treatment options,” including a new addictions treatment facility being built in north Red Deer, said Stagg. “We know this is a crucial tool in addressing the opioid crisis.”
But Stagg believes the continuum of care should optimally include the wrap-around services available at a SCS, which “would best serve clients and the community as a whole,” she added.
Stagg stressed that addiction is not a choice. “Addiction is a disease of the brain and requires individualized approaches to healing and recovery.”
Red Deer had 30 drug overdose deaths in the first six months of the year.
During that same period, Red Deer’s overdose prevention site, operated by Turning Point, had 18,806 visits by an average of 250 different community members per month. Staff and reversed 916 suspected overdoses, not including those that happened at the agency’s main office.
Turning Point staff also distributed over 2,500 naloxone kits to reverse overdoses and provided overdose response training to over 440 community members.
Across Alberta, 856 people died of overdoses from January to the end of June. Stagg said these people came from different backgrounds, occupations, income-levels and experiences.
In 2021, 65 per cent of those who died of overdoses died in a home. In 2017, 81 per cent of people who died of unintentional opioid poisoning had stable housing.
Studies have shown that harm reduction programs, like Red Deer’s Overdose Prevention Site, which allows people to take their own drugs under supervision, neither increase substance use or the number of new users, said Stagg. Some studies have shown they can increase exposure and access to treatment options.
Abstinence models are not useful for people who are not ready to stop using substances, she added. For these people, harm reduction was shown to decrease incidents of Hepatitis C, HIV and a fatal overdose.
Friends of Medicare, an organization that raises public awareness surrounding health care concerns, echoed the calls for more government intervention in the overdose crisis.
“International Overdose Awareness Day is a reminder that our governments must do better,” said executive director Chris Gallaway.
“Each of these deaths were avoidable with community supports. In the face of such tragedy, it has become all the more urgent that Alberta must act decisively to save lives, by supporting harm reduction efforts, supervised consumption services, safe supply and by moving forward with decriminalization.”
Turning Point held an evening of rememberance and overdose awareness on Wednesday, where Community members had the chance to engage one-on-one with more than a dozen local service providers and organizations.
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