Grande Prairie task force to take on opioid crisis in 2018

Grande Prairie Mayor Bill Given launched an opioid task force in late 2017, in response to the soaring number of opioid overdoses in his city.

'The intent of the task force is not to duplicate any other efforts but to coordinate efforts locally'

Grande Prairie Mayor Bill Given launched an opioid task force in December 2017. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Grande Prairie had the highest rate of opioid overdose deaths per citizen in the province last year, according to data from Alberta Health Services. In 2018, the city wants to take on the statistic.

"It is alarming to see the numbers and see Grande Prairie at the top of such a negative list," Grande Prairie Mayor Bill Given told CBC News on Tuesday.

The mayor launched an opioid task force in late 2017, binding together law enforcement, social agencies and addictions resources in the city.

"The intent of the task force is not to duplicate any other efforts but to coordinate efforts locally so that we have a localized Grande Prairie response to the epidemic," he said.

Given, who has been mayor since 2010, said opioids exploded onto the scene in late 2014.

"I wouldn't say that it's something that you see in the streets daily but it absolutely is impacting people's lives daily," he said. "There have been a very significant number of lives lost in Grande Prairie."

Nine people in Grande Prairie fatally overdosed in the first six months of 2017 — almost as many as in all of 2016.  

Less than 65,000 people live in the city, which is about 450 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

In an August 2017 report, Alberta Health Services estimated an average of 23.4 people per 100,000 residents would die of an opioid overdose last year.

"The opioid public health crisis ... is very, very acute in Grande Prairie," Given said. "Grande Prairie, in terms of the Alberta context, is one of the places that is hardest hit and that's why the community needs to come together to develop this kind of coordinated action plan."

'We're seeing so much death'

Eight organizations participated in the first task force meeting in December 2017, though Given said he hopes others will join in 2018.

It's front lines. We feel like we're in a war right now. We're in the trenches and we just have to keep going.- Melissa Byers, HIV North

Participants included representatives from the RCMP, the Grande Prairie public and Catholic school districts, as well as social service agencies such as HIV North.

"This broadens our safety network of support that we have as frontline workers so we can better support our people," said Melissa Byers, executive director of HIV North in Grande Prairie.

Melissa Byers is the executive director of HIV North in Grande Prairie, Alta. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

HIV North supports vulnerable people in northern Alberta through outreach and counselling.

Street nurses who work for the organization also distribute naloxone, a life-saving drug that can temporarily reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

Last year, HIV North handed out more than 1,500 naloxone kits — about five and a half times as many as in 2016.

Byers attributed the spike to a sharp increase in opioid overdoses.

"It's front lines. We feel like we're in a war right now. We're in the trenches and we just have to keep going," Byers said.

"It's hard. We're seeing death. We're seeing so much death."

More than 150 of the people who accepted a naloxone kit from HIV North in 2016 and 2017 reported they used the medication to save a life.

"We are becoming numb to the crisis but it doesn't mean that we are recognizing it any less," Byers said.

"The crisis in Grande Prairie, it's quite real, it's quite severe and it's definitely not going away."

Grande Prairie's new opioid task force will meet throughout 2018 to talk about treatment, prevention, enforcement and harm reduction.

@ZoeHTodd

About the Author

Zoe Todd

Video Journalist

Zoe Todd is a CBC video journalist based in Grande Prairie, Alta., filing videos and stories about the Peace region for web, radio and TV.