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EMS responses to opioid-related calls in Edmonton reach all-time high in 2023

An Alberta Health Services ambulance is shown. (AHS) An Alberta Health Services ambulance is shown. (AHS)

The number of responses by emergency medical services personnel to opioid-related calls in Edmonton has hit a record high.

According to data from Alberta Health's substance use surveillance system, EMS has responded to 4,256 calls related to opioids in the provincial capital so far this year — an average of 426 calls per month — surpassing the previous high of 4,227 calls (352 calls per month) in 2021.

The increase in the number of calls has overwhelmed emergency services, says Michael Parker, president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, the union that represents 29,000 paramedical technical, professional and general support employees in the province.

But it's not something new.

"Our paramedics are running nonstop, our dispatch is trying to handle this massive influx of calls, and the health-care system is not set up anymore to take on this addition, and we've got COVID numbers going through the roof — here we are again, copy and paste from a year ago," Parker told CTV News Edmonton on Tuesday.

The number of EMS responses over the past three years have been notably higher than those previous. The figure more than doubled in 2021 from the year before, and while the number of calls dipped in 2022 to 3,486, they were still markedly higher than the 1,909 in 2020, 916 in 2019 and 1,043 in 2018.

Numbers in Edmonton so far this year are nearly double of those in Calgary, where paramedics have responded to 2,540 opioid-related calls in 2023. EMS personnel have responded to 8,500 calls this year across Alberta.

Parker said the depletion of health-care resources in Alberta "just devastates the system."

"The reality is the volume of calls is so high now that a (paramedic) crew will spend their entire shift going from one overdose to the next, one transport to the hospital to the next overdose. It's non-stop," he said. "It is not just an EMS story. When you look at the mental health and addictions, when you look at the emergency rooms, the people that are out there doing this health care work, regardless of profession, are being devastated by this."

Dan Williams, Alberta's minister of mental health and addiction, was not available for comment.

In a written statement to CTV News Edmonton, his press secretary said anyone "suffering from the deadly disease of addiction deserves an opportunity to pursue recovery, and our government is making that possible, rather than facilitating the addiction that is tearing apart families, taking lives, breaking down communities.”

“We are committed to breaking down barriers to recovery," Hunter Baril said in the statement. "We have done this by removing the daily fees that made treatment impossible for so many and by expanding capacity for addiction treatment spaces throughout the province."

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Shelby Clarke Top Stories

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