Skip to content

Up to 11 overdose calls a week are coming into Red Deer EMS

International Overdose Awareness Day reveals conflicting views
An injection kit used at a B.C. supervised-consumption is shown in this photo from 2017. Red Deer’s Supervised Consumption Site was cancelled by the UCP government and operation of the local Overdose Prevention Site was transferred to Alberta Health Services. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward photo)

Red Deerians are continuing to overdose from growing drug toxicity, with advocates predicting no downward trend on International Overdose Awareness Day Thursday.

“We just got through the worst phase of the drug crisis in Alberta’s history,” said Euan Thomson, co-founder of Each + Every: Businesses for Harm Reduction. He blames more toxic drugs that are appearing in Red Deer, as well as Calgary, Edmonton and elsewhere.

According to the government’s Alberta Substance Use Surveillance System, local paramedics have been responding to anywhere from 1 to 11 overdoses weekly in the city so far in 2023 (except for only one week with no calls).

The EMS response graph shows some of the highest spikes in overdose calls since 2018 have happened this year, with Red Deer paramedics responding to between eight and 11 overdose calls in each of four weeks between June 1 and July 10 of this year.

By comparison, the highest number of overdose calls received by EMS during a week in 2022 was eight — and this only occurred once during the entire year.

Although local drug fatalities used to be tracked and the numbers regularly released while Turning Point was running Red Deer’s Overdose Prevention Site, timely information on fatalities has been more difficult to obtain since Alberta Health Services took over OPS operations in May.

The government’s Alberta Substance Use Surveillance System data still only shows fatality numbers up to the end of May when there were 40 deaths from various substances in Red Deer — down slightly from the 49 deaths in April.

Thomson said April was the worst month in recent years for fatal overdoses in Alberta, with 179 deaths.

Thomson extrapolated from the rising numbers of EMS calls that overdose deaths could now be over 200 a month in Alberta.

However, according to Alberta’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, Dan Williams, the number of overdose deaths from addiction has recently decreased in Alberta — and he credited his government’s “comprehensive system of care” based on treatment and recovery.

Williams noted his UCP government has added more than 10,000 new publicly funded addiction treatment spaces and eliminated user fees for live-in addiction treatment.

Since most overdose fatalities take place at home, the minister promoted the government’s Digital Overdose Response System (DORS) as “a life-saving app that helps connect people to emergency assistance if they become unresponsive while using opioids or other drugs.” So far, the government states, there are 2,000 registered users of the app.

But Thomson believes many other drug users aren’t signing up for the app because they don’t have a smartphone, or “they don’t trust it.”

He believes reducing the stigma around drugs would be a better option as most people at risk are not drug addicts but recreational users who mostly die at home. If their roommates — or even their parents — were made aware of the person’s drug use, they could do wellness checks, said Thomson.

He and the opposition New Democrats point to the number of Albertans still overdosing and say this obviously shows the government’s move to reduce harm reduction programs, including some previously approved Supervised Consumption Sites, is not working. Red Deer was approved for an SCS under the NDP, but this was nixed after the UCP formed government.

Janet Eremenko, NDP Critic for Mental Health and Addictions, said these sites are proven to save lives.

From 2019 to 2023, the overdose death rate has more than tripled on the UCP’s watch, with more than 5,500 Albertans dying of preventable poisonings, added Eremenko, who feels the Alberta Model of treatment and recovery “has proven to be nothing more than a hollow branding exercise.”

“We all have people in our lives affected by problematic substance use… it often takes multiple attempts to take a different path,” she added. “I don’t want any more Alberta families to feel the anguish of grief because their government refused to help them.”

Lana Michelin

About the Author: Lana Michelin

Lana Michelin has been a reporter for the Red Deer Advocate since moving to the city in 1991.
Read more