Edmonton responders struggle to keep up with opioid crisis, council hears

Edmonton police, firefighters and the province say they’re doing their best to keep up with the opioid crisis, city council heard Wednesday.

Edmonton police say drug users are experimenting with different opioid derivatives and doses

Alberta had a 40 per cent increase in deaths related to opioids between 2016 and 2017. (CBC)

Edmonton police, firefighters and the province say they're doing their best to keep up with the opioid crisis, city council heard Wednesday.

From January to September 2017, 120 people in Edmonton died of fentanyl overdose, according to a report presented to council Wednesday.

In Alberta, 482 people died from opioids in 2017 compared to 346 the year before — a 40 per cent increase.

"We are continuing to see high number of deaths that are related to opioid overdoses," said Dr. Chris Sikora with Alberta Health Services. "We are also seeing still-high numbers of deaths that are related to fentanyl consumption overall."

Edmonton fire crews have been trained to use naloxone, a medication that counters the effects of an overdose.

Fire Chief Ken Block said that since training started in February, firefighters have administered naloxone over 100 times, including nine times in January of this year. 
Police Insp. Shane Perka, front, and Edmonton fire Chief Ken Block give councillors an update on the opioid crisis Wednesday. (CBC)

"Sadly, it doesn't surprise me," he said. "We started to see the Alberta numbers climb about a year ago. Thankfully we're nowhere near the Vancouver experience."

Edmonton police Insp. Shane Perka told council it's an ongoing challenge.

"It's evolving quickly and we're doing our best to try and keep up with that evolution," he said. "It's almost kind of a weekly or ongoing education for us in responding to it."

Perka said police are seeing drug users experiment with different forms and derivatives of opioids and "variations of different doses."

In the days before the fentanyl crisis, he said hard-drug users mixed cocaine and heroin, while now they're mixing drugs like cocaine and fentanyl, making for a much more lethal blend. 
Dr. Chris Sikora with Alberta Health says a combination of naloxone, enhanced mental health services and safe injection sites should help limit the opioid problem. (CBC)

Despite the high number of deaths last year, Dr. Sikora said he's optimistic a team effort will lead to progress.

"I shudder to think what things would be like if we haven't had a ... naloxone program," he said. "If we haven't had the expanded mental health services, if we hadn't had such dedicated effort in this area."

Three safe injection sites are set to open in Edmonton this year.

Coun. Michael Walters asked Sikora whether other jurisdictions were "getting a handle" on reducing the number of incidents.

"To the best of my knowledge, North American-wide is seeing a very similar challenge," Sikora said.

He said prevention will help, along with providing housing, income support and treatment. 

Coun. Scott McKeen suggested the city and province look at a harm-reduction program in supportive housing for addicts, similar to the way Ambrose Place in the inner city works. 
Coun. Scott McKeen says councillors who skip crucial votes should be accountable. (CBC)

Residents there are allotted a certain amount of alcohol to ease withdrawal symptoms as they recover. 

"People aren't partying, but they're keeping the heebie-jeebies away," McKeen said. 

He said such a program would be a mature response to helping those with chronic addictions to powerful drugs.

"As a society, as a community, we provide safe medical opioids to you, and you don't have to then die, you don't have to prostitute yourself," McKeen said, adding harm-reduction programs would help save on emergency services costs in the long run.