Government must take responsibility for the outcome of Alberta’s other ongoing public health emergency

Government must take responsibility for the outcome of Alberta’s other ongoing public health emergency

Yesterday, while the media was focused on the federal throne speech, the Alberta government quietly released their much anticipated Opioid Response Surveillance quarterly report. Harm reduction advocates, including those whose lives have been personally impacted by overdose, have been pleading for Jason Luan, Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions to release the latest report since the quarter ended in June. Now that it is publicly available, the report confirms what those close to the issue have feared. The most up-to-date data shows that 449 people have died from apparent unintentional opioid poisoning in just the first six months of 2020.

These numbers have revealed that opioid deaths have doubled in the most recent quarter: 301 individuals died of unintentional opioid poisoning between April and June, compared to 148 people in the previous quarter. To put it into perspective, in the first six months of 2020, an average of 2.5 individuals died every day in Alberta as a result of unintentional opioid poisoning. “People are dying in our province. These numbers reflect the stark reality of hundreds of vulnerable Albertans who need our support and are not getting it,” says Sandra Azocar, Executive Director of Friends of Medicare. “It’s simply unacceptable.”

The government has indicated that they are in the process of creating 4,000 additional publicly funded treatment spaces, however this report did not show whether any of these beds are currently available, where they are located, or when they can be expected to come on stream. “When it comes to an issue that is so urgent, while Albertans are dying at a rate of 2.5 each day, we can't afford to wait months for the latest data, or for the latest piece of the strategy to be unveiled,” says Azocar.

In the meantime, they have cut funding to Alberta’s Supervised Consumption Services (SCS), and as of March 2021, the United Conservative government will not be renewing a grant dedicated to a first-of-its-kind opioid agonist treatment (iOAT) pilot program in Calgary and Edmonton, ousting 100 people from the treatment on which they rely. In the case of Lethbridge, former home of the busiest SCS facility in North America, funding was abruptly cancelled, and the site was closed without the government developing a transition strategy to assure continuity of care for those who depend on the services. 

Lethbridge meanwhile has seen the highest rate of fentanyl deaths per capita in Alberta, at a rate of 42.4 deaths per 100,000 residents so far in 2020, compared to just 16.3 last year. With the closure of the site of their largest and most comprehensive addictions supports, we can expect that the overdose rate will only continue to escalate.

This report has made clear that through the past few months, while Albertans have been contending with the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the overdose epidemic has not slowed its course to tear through our communities. This is an ongoing and worsening public health crisis, yet the Alberta government has decided to defund harm reduction initiatives throughout the province, and to all but erase the necessary tenets of harm reduction from their addictions strategy. In addition to the tragic picture painted in this quarterly report, decades worth of data from around the world support SCS because they save lives. But instead of following the best evidence, this government is showing that they are willing to risk the lives of untold numbers of Albertans in order to blindly pursue their rigid ideology. 

“The most vulnerable Albertans are becoming collateral damage to a government that is bent on pushing forward an ideological agenda to cut and privatize the very programs that make our province safer and healthier,” says Azocar. “These are real people, with real families and communities who need assurance that their loved ones will have access to the care they need and deserve. The government must take accountability for the consequences of their heartless actions.”