Spike in opioid-related calls in Edmonton a 'drug poisoning emergency,' expert says

The opioid and overdose crisis is showing no signs of slowing down, with Alberta Health Services reporting over 100 opioid-related calls to Emergency Medical Services in Edmonton in one week.

Alberta Health Services received 139 opioid-related calls in Edmonton in 1 week

Alberta Health Services said they received 139 opioid-related EMS calls in Edmonton from July 12 to 18. (CBC)

The overdose crisis in Edmonton is showing no signs of slowing down, with Emergency Medical Services receiving over 100 opioid-related calls in the city in one week. 

"It's an emergency," said Elaine Hyshka, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta's School of Public Health and expert on the opioid epidemic.

"There's no clear way to state it, like, we're facing a drug poisoning emergency. We are losing at least four Albertans a day to overdose deaths." 

In a statement to CBC, Alberta Health Services said they received 139 opioid-related EMS calls in Edmonton from July 12 to 18. 

In June, a surge in overdoses prompted calls to action from many in the community to address the ongoing crisis. 

According to research from the government of Canada, while there has been an increase in opioid-related deaths across the country, western provinces have seen the most impact.

Hyshka believes the recent overdoses are not an opioid crisis, but a "drug poisoning emergency.

"What we're seeing now is that the illegal drug market has become completely contaminated with highly toxic drugs, including fentanyl and other analogs, but also other substances."

Judith Gale at the Bear Clan Patrol Beaver Hill House also mentioned the harmful supply of drugs currently circulating. 

"The borders are closed, so the drug channel is closed," Gale said. "And so people at home are trying to make their own drugs and they don't know anything about it. So it's not very good drugs that they're making. That's why it's killing people."

Gale said on her patrols she sees at least 10 people a day who are ending up in the ER because of drug overdoses. 

'Depressing' response to the emergency 

Hyshka feels the public health response to the emergency has not been enough. 

"It may surprise many Albertans and many Edmontonians to know that more people died from drug poisoning in 2020 than died from COVID-19 in our province," she said. "And yet the drug poisoning crisis is not discussed and not talked about. 

"We don't have regular updates from the chief medical officer of health about the situation. We don't have any kind of working groups or task forces that could respond effectively and support people and their families.

"It really is, quite frankly, depressing to see the contrast when there is motivation to address the emergency," said Hyshka.

While she does commend the province for expanding access to treatments such as medications, counselling or residential treatment programs, Hyshka said these services are not helpful to those who are overdosing before they have the chance to access them. 

Hyshka said it is important to find people alternatives to the illegal drug market.

Harm reduction is also a component of the work Gale does with Bear Clan, which means providing people with safer options such as clean needles and alcohol swabs.

It also means ensuring the most vulnerable in areas with high overdose counts are accounted for and supported, she said. 

"That's why we always have to go out there and watch over our brothers and sisters," said Gale.

"We patrol the streets and we wake up anybody that we come across, if we see them sleeping or lying on the ground to make sure that they're alive and they have a pulse, and that they know where they are, they're coherent.

"We never leave a man down ever. We always stay with somebody until … we find an ambulance or people to help them."


Anusha Kav is an intern at CBC Edmonton. She is completing a Master of Journalism at the University of British Columbia where she specializes in gender issues. Contact Anusha at anusha.kav@cbc.ca.

With files from Julien Latraverse