Saskatoon paramedics record 100 overdose calls in single week

Paramedics in Saskatoon have been recording a steady stream of overdose calls in recent weeks, but the early days of August saw the city reach a sad milestone, as paramedics responded to 100 overdose calls in the course of a single week for the first time.

Supervised consumption site executive director calls on health authority for more transparency around data

Jason Mercredi, the executive director of Praire Harm Reduction, stands in the organization's supervised consumption site, which is set to open on Oct. 1, 2020. He says the Saskatchewan Health Authority needs to release more data about overdoses, so community groups can get a more complete picture of the issue in the city. (Chelsea Laskowski/CBC)

The head of Saskatoon's soon-to-open supervised consumption site says a lack of data on overdoses from the Saskatchewan Health Authority is hindering efforts to save lives and prevent overdoses in the city.

Jason Mercredi, executive director of Prairie Harm Reduction, says right now, advocates have to gather the data from agencies like Medavie Health Services West, the Saskatoon Police Service and the Saskatoon Fire Department, to find out how many people are overdosing in the city.

That method is resulting in gaps in data, he says, and the provincial health authority has been "completely silent on this — which is unacceptable," he said.

Paramedics in Saskatoon have recorded a steady stream of overdose calls in recent weeks, but the early days of August saw the city reach a sad milestone. For the first time, paramedics responded to 100 overdose calls in the course of a week. 

The overdose calls accounted for more than 12 per cent of the total responses by Medavie Health Services West between July 27 and Aug. 3.

The high number of overdoses shows supports in place in Saskatoon are falling short, Mercredi said.

"This is now, by far, our worst week, and that's just from Medavie," he said. "We still don't have calls that [the fire department] was responding to without ambulatory services, or police were responding to, or people that just showed up at the emergency room. We don't have a complete picture right now." 

Mercredi also said when data comes from organizations like police or paramedics, overdoses are framed as a justice issue, when advocates feel they should be treated as a health issue. He said he wants to see the SHA take a more proactive approach. 

"The way it's set up right now, it's clearly not working," said Mercredi. 

The data released by Medavie doesn't provide any information about whether any of the overdoses were fatal. The risk for the public is high if that information isn't available, Mercredi said.

"Whether they're a casual cocaine user, or they have people in their family that are using drugs, they always say, 'I didn't think they were at risk,'" he said.

"We need to get the word out that this is a major issue in this city. It's not going away and we need to actually be proactive in dealing with this and talking about solutions."

33 overdose deaths in Regina

Saskatchewan cities have been hit hard by overdoses in recent months. Regina has recorded at least 33 overdose deaths in 2020, with Regina police Chief Evan Bray calling the situation a "pandemic within a pandemic."

In Saskatoon, people rummaged through the pockets of a man who overdosed and died in the city's downtown last month, spurring more calls for a supervised consumption site. 

The Prairie Harm Reduction supervised consumption site is set to open on Oct. 1.

One day last month, Saskatoon police distributed naloxone to three people experiencing an overdose in the span of four hours.

Earlier this summer, Health Minister Jim Reiter said the province has much work to do around addressing overdoses in the province after a string of fatal overdoses in Regina.

"We just have to do better with addictions services right across the board. Detox, addictions treatment beds, counselling, all the services around it," he said.

CBC Saskatoon requested an interview with a representative from the Saskatchewan Health Authority to discuss concerns raised by Mercredi, but a statement was provided instead.

In the statement, medical health officer Johnmark Opondo said the SHA continues "to work hard to address the issue of overdose throughout the province and in Saskatoon."

Dr. Johnmark Opondo said the Saskatchewan Health Authority is working with community-based partners to reduce the number of overdoses taking place in Saskatoon and right across Saskatchewan. (Don Somers/CBC)

However, when it comes to overdose data, the health authority may not be the gatekeeper, said Opondo.

"When it comes to the public disclosure of data related to overdoses, it is important to understand that this is a complex matter," he said.

"For overdoses ending in death, this data is not obtained through the Saskatchewan Health Authority; it would be potentially obtained through either the attending first responder/ambulance provider or the Saskatchewan Coroners Service."

The statement did not address questions about whether or not the SHA plans to release more data on overdoses going forward.

Programs available, SHA says

In the statement, Opondo outlines numerous programs the SHA has in place to address the issue of overdoses in the province. This includes the Opioid Assisted Recovery Services programs, which provide substance users with daily doses of methadone to prevent potentially severe withdrawal and cravings.

The statement also pointed to the SHA's Rapid Access Addictions Program, which helps users with a referral from an emergency room or acute care get rapid access to medications like suboxone and methadone. Detox programs provided by the SHA continued to support clients through the pandemic, the statement said, and while community-based addiction services have changed, they have been running uninterrupted.

The injection naloxone kit gives two doses in case the first dose is not enough. The Saskatchewan Health Authority says the Take Home Naloxone program is one of its key strategies when it comes to addreessing overdoses in the province. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

Opondo also highlighted the Take Home Naloxone program, which he said is one of the SHA's "key strategies" in addressing overdoses, noting in this fiscal year, more than 750 kits have been distributed. 

"This program works in partnership with many community agencies in order to expand our reach," Opondo said in the statement, noting the authority "tremendously values" the community partnerships it has developed over the years.

He pointed to its participation in the Safe Community Action Alliance, an organization made up of 30 agencies working to address crystal meth use and increase access to safe and affordable housing. 

Prairie Harm Reduction is one of the community-based organizations the SHA is working with, Opondo said, along with groups like the Central Urban Métis Federation Inc. and the Lighthouse to provide services.

"We look forward to more discussions with our [community-based organization] partners on how we can best support the efforts to address overdoses in Saskatoon and in our province," he said.

According to the Saskatchewan Coroners Service, the province recorded a total of 139 deaths attributed to accidental drug toxicity in 2019.