Opioid deaths spike in first half of 2020, Alberta cites pandemic as cause
EDMONTON -- Alberta's opioid-related deaths increased by nearly 100 in the first half of 2020 compared to the same timeframe last year, and the provincial government says the COVID-19 pandemic is to blame.
The Alberta COVID-19 Opioid Response Surveillance Report Q2 2020 says there were 449 unintentional opioid deaths in the first months of 2020 — an increase of 99 from the first half of 2019.
The majority of the 449 deaths — 414 — came as a result of a fentanyl overdose, the report said.
Unintentional opioid deaths saw a sharp incline during the second quarter, between April and June, with 148 deaths in the first quarter and 301 in the second.
The province says it began to see a significant increase in March, eventually resulting in "record levels not previously seen."
"This sharp rise was in conjunction with a decrease in the utilization of treatment and harm reduction services," the report read.
"The past few months have led to increased fear and anxiety, isolation, disruption to in-person services, job uncertainty and more," said Jason Luan, Alberta's associated minister of mental health and addictions. "This has exacerbated the struggles of many Albertans, including those struggling with substance use."
The report shows opioid-dependence treatment went from 86 per cent in March to 52.6 per cent in April, before it climbed again to 84.2 per cent in June. Furthermore, supervised consumption sites saw a steep decline in visits from 114,430 in the first quarter to 40,755 in the second quarter at facilities in Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer, Lethbridge and Grande Prairie.
Dr. Elaine Hyshka with the University of Alberta's School of Public Health said the number of deaths is alarming.
"We know that the pandemic has had a significant impact on people and it is reducing the number that are seeking help at treatment clinics or at supervised consumption services," Hyshka told CTV News Edmonton. "But we also know that the pandemic has made the drug supply very toxic and so people who are dependent on illegal drugs are forced to use very dangerous substances that are leading to increases in overdose."
She said Alberta needs a coordinated public health response to address opioid use.
The Opposition NDP called the number of deaths "shocking."
“More Albertans have died from an opioid overdose in the last three months than in the entirety of the COVID-19 pandemic," said Heather Sweet, the NDP's critic for mental health and addiction. "The single most important responsibility of any government is to protect human life."
Sweet criticized the government's decision to close Lethbridge's supervised consumption site, which she says was the busiest in North America.
Luan said British Columbia has reported similar findings.