Edmonton

Edmonton doctors band together to battle Alberta's deepening opioid crisis

The death toll from Alberta’s opioid crisis rivals that of COVID-19 but is largely being neglected by the province, says a group of Edmonton doctors advocating for improved addictions care.

'There is need for physician leadership, which is not influenced by politics or stigma'

Physicians with the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association announced a new opioid poisoning committee this week in response to the increasing number of overdose deaths in Alberta. (Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images)

The death toll from Alberta's opioid crisis rivals that of COVID-19 but is largely being neglected by the province, says a group of Edmonton doctors advocating for improved addictions care.

Physicians with the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association announced a new opioid poisoning committee Wednesday in response to an increasing number of overdose deaths — and what they see as politically-motivated cuts to addiction services.

"This is an emergency that cannot continue to be ignored," the group said in a statement. "Our committee will advocate for the needs of our patients and community."

Members say the government of Premier Jason Kenney has shown "a clear lack of leadership and support" in response to the deepening crisis.

"As the situation in Alberta becomes graver, there is need for physician leadership, which is not influenced by politics or stigma," the group said.

The committee said opioids have proved nearly as deadly as COVID-19.

In 2019, 624 Albertans died of opioid poisoning, it said.

In 2020, that number surged to 1,154, with an average of four Albertans dying every day from overdoses. Also in 2020, 1,211 Albertans died of COVID-19.

"We, as a society, have spent millions on a response to the COVID epidemic," Dr. Stan Houston said during a news conference Thursday. "There is just no way this discrepancy can be justified."

The government's approach to addiction services has often put it at odds with advocates on the front lines. 

Kenney has long rejected the harm-reduction model of care, instead pushing for investments in in long-term recovery centres. His government has moved to close or relocate some established supervised consumption sites. 

In 2020, the province closed North America's busiest supervised consumption service — in Lethbridge — following an audit.

The government cut funding for an injectable opioid agonist treatment program in 2020. After a lawsuit was filed, patients with the last-resort program were transferred to another, similar harm-reduction program under a two-year grant. But new intakes were halted.

The province is now facing a separate lawsuit over new ID requirements that would require supervised consumption sites to collect health-card information from clients.

Led by Dr. Ginetta Salvalaggio and Dr. Cheryl Mack, the opioid poisoning committee includes physicians from various disciplines including public health, intensive care and emergency medicine.

Salvalaggio said the group will advocate for evidence-based care, make policy recommendations to government, and raise public awareness about the impact of opioid poisonings on the broader health-care system.

"We are very, very sick and tired of seeing preventable deaths happen," Salvalaggio said Thursday. "We just want to see some more action on this."

More funding is needed for addiction programs and any planned cuts to harm reduction services must be reversed, she said.

"These deaths are horrible for our communities and for our families; many of us are grieving."

'Tip of the iceberg'

Edmonton saw a midsummer spike in drug poisonings this year. During one week in July, EMS received over 100 opioid-related calls. By the end of that month, the total had reached 600, said Dr. Jaspreet Khangura, who works at the Royal Alexandra Hospital.

The number and severity of overdoses continues to increase, Khangura said, driven largely by an increasingly contaminated supply of street drugs.

"What we see in the emergency room really just represents the tip of the iceberg," said Khangura.

She said she recently performed CPR on someone who had overdosed on a sidewalk near her home.

"It was a reminder to me that opiate poisoning can happen anywhere, not just limited to the walls of my department or my hospital. It affects all of our communities."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Wallis Snowdon

Journalist

Wallis Snowdon is a digital journalist with CBC Edmonton. Originally from New Brunswick, her journalism career has taken her from Nova Scotia to Fort McMurray. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca

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