Alberta government under fire for response to record 343 fentanyl deaths

Facing a grim and growing death toll from fentanyl overdoses — a total of 343 last year — the Alberta government moved Tuesday to make antidote kits available to all first-responders and to the general public without prescriptions.

Naloxone kits will be available to all police, firefighters and paramedics, and to members of the public

Associate minister of health Brandy Payne announced several new steps Tuesday to help the province deal with a crisis of drug overdoses. (CBC)

Facing a grim and growing death toll from fentanyl overdoses — a total of 343 last year — the Alberta government announced its latest steps Tuesday to curb the crisis, though critics were quick to condemn the moves as weak and wanting.

The government announced it will make opioid antidote kits available to all first-responders and to the general public, without prescriptions.

Naloxone, the antidote that blocks the effects of an overdose, will now be listed as an unscheduled drug in Alberta, allowing anyone to get a kit.

The total number of fentanyl deaths in Alberta last year marked an increase of almost 100 over the 2015 total, when 257 people died.

At a news conference Tuesday at an Edmonton fire hall, the province's associate health minister also announced plans to open an opioid dependency treatment clinic this spring in Grande Prairie, to serve 300 patients.

Alberta Health will also begin publishing interim reports on fentanyl deaths to give the public and front-line workers more up-to-date information, said associate minister of health Brandy Payne.

But one Edmonton public health physician who treats patients with addictions said the fentanyl numbers released Tuesday don't tell the whole story.

"This is an unmitigated public health crisis to do with drug poisoning," said Dr. Hakique Virani, who also works as a clinical assistant professor in the faculty of medicine at the University of Alberta.

The province has not released information about the total number of drug overdoses in the last three months of 2016, Virani said.

"It's important, right now when we're in the midst of a huge public health crisis, for people to feel like we care. And to not report what's happening, unfortunately, leaves a lot of people with the message that we say we do, but we're not demonstrating it."

Payne said one step that will help save lives is to make naloxone kits widely available, not only to firefighters, paramedics and police officers, but also to the general public.

In the past, such kits were available at drug stores, but only by prescription.
(Alberta Health)

"Our first responders are among the people experiencing the traumatic toll this crisis is having on families, and communities," Payne said. "We want to make sure our emergency crews have the equipment and training they need, so they can respond more quickly and more effectively to someone suffering from a potentially deadly opioid overdose."

For the province's 5,000 professional firefighters, naloxone will be another new tool to help them combat a problem that has become all too familiar.

Firefighters already training to use antidote

Edmonton Fire Chief Ken Block said Tuesday's announcement will help his crews save lives when they arrive at the scene where someone is overdosing. 

"We're currently having ... that training carried out in stations as we speak, and our expectation is that it'll take us about two weeks to be confident that we're ready to start administering the naloxone, which lines up pretty well with its availability."

Police officers, in many cases the first ones on the scene, will also have training and naloxone kits made available to them, Payne said. Firefighters in Calgary have been using the kits since December of 2016

"I would encourage anyone who is concerned about a friend, a family member, a loved one, to please go pick up a kit," Payne said. "They are distributed through community pharmacies across the province, as well as harm reduction agencies will be able to hand out the kits."

The minister said about five minutes of training is involved before people can take the kits home.   

The province also announced that $730,000 in grants will be provided to support agencies in several communities, including Edmonton and Calgary, to establish supervised consumption sites.

On Tuesday, Alberta's opposition parties chided the government for not doing enough on the issue

Wildrose MLA Tany Yao again called on the NDP government to declare a public health emergency, which he said would allow for greater information sharing and bring more public awareness to the fentanyl crisis.

Alberta Liberal Leader, Dr. David Swann, said the government's response to the opioid crisis falls short of what is needed.​

"The NDP government has not put enough priority or urgency on this issue," Swann said in a statement. "In addition to naloxone, it must ensure greater co-operation, more information sharing, and a better understanding of what is and what is not working."

An even more dangerous drug

The latest overdose numbers came as the province gears up to face an even more dangerous drug, a toxic opioid pain killer called carfentanil, considered to be 100 times more potent than fentanyl.

The drug, relatively new to the province, was linked to 22 deaths in Alberta in 2016, the provincial government said.

In British Columbia, more than 900 people died last year from illegal drug overdoses, numbers unprecedented in the province's history.

B.C. was the first province to declare a public health emergency, and Premier Christy Clark was the first to assemble a joint task force of leading health and criminal justice experts to address the crisis on all fronts.

It was the first jurisdiction in North America to have supervised injection sites, and the first to implement overdose-prevention sites. Since then Montreal has approved three safe injection sites as well.

Payne said she hopes to have Edmonton's first safe injection site open "as soon as possible, ideally by the end of this year."

The group behind Edmonton's safe injection site has community consultation scheduled in the coming weeks.