Spate of drug overdoses continues in Lethbridge

A dangerous drug problem continues to keep emergency crews busy in the Lethbridge area, with EMS responding to 12 overdose calls between Monday evening and Tuesday morning.

EMS called to 12 incidents overnight, adding to tally of 42 in past week

Deputy fire chief Dana Terry says first responders are feeling the stress of the drug crisis and increased demand for their services. (Lucie Edwardson/CBC)

A dangerous drug problem continues to keep emergency crews busy in the Lethbridge area, with EMS responding to 12 overdose calls between Monday evening and Tuesday morning.

The latest cases are on top of 42 overdoses handled by Lethbridge paramedics in the past week, officials say.

"On Friday, in a 24-hour period, we had 16, which is far above any other day that we have seen up to this point," said Dana Terry, deputy chief of fire and EMS operations for the City of Lethbridge.

Stacey Bourque, executive director of Lethbridge's drug outreach and support organization, ARCHES, said the city's first safe consumption site will open its doors Wednesday morning.

But that's little consolation following the slew of overdoses in the past few days. 

"It causes an immense amount of stress knowing we're sitting here waiting to open and that we need to open … now more than ever. We wish we could have been open yesterday," she said.

Bourque said the crisis is taking an emotional toll on frontline workers in the area who are constantly reviving people from overdoses.

Stacey Bourque, executive director of ARCHES, says it's frustrating to see the situation escalate just days before the Lethbridge safe consumption site is set to open. (Lucie Edwardson/CBC)

"When that becomes the foundation of your job or the majority of calls that you're attending to, it gets very tiring — and sad," she said. "It's sad to continuously be implementing an intervention for someone when you know that there's so many other things out there that we could be doing to support the population instead of letting it get to this point."

Terry agrees that emergency responders are feeling the pinch.

"When you're responding to 16 calls a day and your service is already busy, those definitely add to the workload of our staff and the stress that they're facing."

Lethbridge Mayor Chris Spearman says some citizens are complaining that the city appears idle in dealing with the crisis — but he says solutions take time.

"In the last three years, it's exploded. The level of drug use in our city has taken off," he said. "We're trying to get a handle on it. We're using the best leading edge information to try and address the problem."

Mayor Chris Spearman says the city is working as quickly as it can to implement strategies to deal with the ongoing opioid crisis. (Lucie Edwardson/CBC)

Spearman said the worst thing they could do is do nothing.

"We haven't done nothing, but it's taking awhile to get these programs in place," he said.

Just west and south of Lethbridge, crews on the sprawling Blood Tribe First Nation responded to six overdoses on Friday, six on Saturday and two more on Sunday night, said Kevin Cowan, chief executive of the band's health department.

Officials aren't yet certain what's in the pills circulating in Lethbridge and on the reserve, but it's believed to be an especially toxic batch of fentanyl or carfentanil.

Blood Tribe chief and council planned to meet with police, health officials and other community members Monday afternoon to formalize a response to the overdoses.

No spike seen in Calgary

The Calgary Fire Department said in an email it has not seen a spike in opioid overdoses like Lethbridge has.

But spokeswoman Carol Henke noted they have seen a 52 per cent increase in the number of times Naloxone has been administered by firefighters so far in 2018 compared with the year before.

In 2017, the fire department responded to about 1,100 fentanyl-related calls, with Naloxone being administered to 318 patients — an average of nearly one a day.

With files from the CBC's Lucie Edwardson and Colleen Underwood