The government’s latest statistics show 1,029 people in Alberta have died from unintentional opioid poisoning in 2020. (File photo by The Associated Press)

The government’s latest statistics show 1,029 people in Alberta have died from unintentional opioid poisoning in 2020. (File photo by The Associated Press)

Number of opioid-related deaths in Alberta ‘troubling,’ says Turning Point executive director

Thirty-six people have died in Red Deer so far in 2020 from opioid overdoses, while 904 have died in the province, according to latest statistics.

Stacey Carmichael, executive director of Turning Point, which operates Red Deer’s overdose prevention site, says fatality rates are increasing.

“They’re devastating numbers,” she said Friday.

“We’ve exceeded the rates … of deaths in Red Deer alone. They’ve almost doubled from last year. They are down from the whole year of 2018.”

Red Deer reported 24 overdose deaths in 2019, 60 in 2018, 40 in 2017 and 39 in 2016.

The statistics were announced at a press conference Friday when the Government of Alberta launched a new tool to provide up-to-date substance use data Friday.

The new Alberta Substance Use Surveillance System is now officially available. The system replaces the province’s quarterly reports.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the only public health crisis in Alberta, Premier Jason Kenney said during Friday’s press conference.

“Thousands of Albertans continue to battle mental health and addictions issues, often times made more difficult by public health measures, and Alberta’s government is firmly committed to being there to help them recover,” Kenney said.

“This new data system will give us better insights into addiction issues, help us respond with better measures to support recovery and ultimately support our overall goal of protecting lives and livelihoods through this pandemic and beyond.”

The provincial government says this is the most “detailed and comprehensive” reporting system in Canada.

Tracking substance use data helps the government better understand the addiction challenges in Alberta and make informed, strategic decisions about how best to support individuals needing to enter recovery, said Kenney.

In 2020’s third quarter, July to October, 443 Albertans died from unintentional opioid poisoning.

In Red Deer, six people died in July, five died in August, two died in September and four died in October, according to the new system.

The overdose prevention site in Red Deer had 8,705 visits during the third quarter of 2020.

Carmichael said she believes people may begin to see how “troubling the trends have been” in regards to opioid-related deaths in Alberta.

Managing the opioid crisis amid the COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenge, Carmichael added.

“The folks we see at Turning Point, lots of the day-to-day services they access were reduced. Then they were challenged to isolate. The drug supply is contaminated and continues to become more and more so. I think all those things factor into the increasing rates for sure,” she said.

“We didn’t have enough capacity as it was, but we went from four booths at our overdose prevention site to two, to meet the public safety guidelines that were recommended.

“People who are homeless didn’t have access to telephones so they could make appointments or so they could access the virtual opioid dependency program.”

Provincially, a record number of community naloxone kits were distributed in the third quarter of 2020 (27,641).

The government says after reaching a peak in July, opioid overdose deaths have steadily declined through August, September and October.

From July to October, opioid overdose deaths decreased by 33 per cent and EMS responses decreased by 36 per cent from July to October, the government added. But both rates remain significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels.

In addition to data supplied in previous reports, the Alberta Substance Use System will include data on other substances, such as alcohol and methamphetamine.

“Since opioid poisoning rose to prominence as a major public health crisis around 2016, the harms of other substances have received less profile and less attention,” said Kenney.

“When we talk only about opioid-related harms, we perhaps unintentionally neglect other forms of addiction and the harms that they can cause. All addiction, no matter the substance, can tear families apart, destroy liveliness, ruin lives and strike at the very heart of our communities.”

Click here to see the new Alberta Substance Use Surveillance System.

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