Alberta opioid deaths dip slightly, but 2021 toll still grimmest ever

Some experts in the field say the COVID-19 pandemic has deepened the opioid crisis by increasing isolation, diverting medical resources and heightening overall mental health pressures.

Calgary Herald 4 minute read October 8, 2021

Together, Calgary and Edmonton recorded 142 opioid overdose deaths in the first two months of 2021. Postmedia Archives

Opioid fatalities in Alberta were down slightly over the first half of summer but 2021’s scourge remains the most lethal so far.

Known fatal overdoses from opioids – the vast majority of them involving fentanyl – numbered 242 last June and July, a 5 per cent drop from the 254 recorded during the same months last year.

That’s due to deaths last July falling from 144 in the previous year to 112 this past summer – one of only two months in 2021 to see a reduction.

But that shift in the deadly tally only slightly slows the trend towards the grimmest year to date in Alberta’s opioids overdose crisis.

In the first seven months of the year, 720 Albertans have succumbed to overdoses compared to 619 in the same time period in 2020, which was by far the worst year for fatalities with 1,316.

It’s too early to have much optimism that the tide is shifting, said Dr. Monty Ghosh, an internal medicine and addictions physician.

“I hope they have but the general trend has (still) shifted since COVID-19 to worse outcomes,” he said.

An increase in the distribution of Naloxone kits, which are used to reverse overdoses, could be a factor in the declining July numbers, he said.

But an alarmingly stubborn trend, he said, is the presence of carfentanil, a synthetic opioid analgesic fentanyl which is 100 times more potent and far more prevalent in Edmonton than Calgary, said Ghosh, who works in both cities.

He noted 50 per cent of opioid deaths in the province’s capital so far this year involved carfentanil whereas in Calgary, that figure is 5 per cent.

In June-July, there were 111 opioid deaths in Edmonton while in Calgary, 77 were recorded.

“What I’m hearing on the streets is there’s a huge carfentanil issue in Edmonton – there’s a lot of organized crime around carfentanil,” said Ghosh.

“We clearly need more resources in Edmonton – harm reduction, treatment, agonists (replacement drugs).”

The substance is so deadly, he said, handling it is extremely dangerous for its local manufacturers and dealers, let alone its consumers.

“You need a lot of expertise to manage carfentanil because of its potency,” said Ghosh.

Physicians say it’s more difficult to reverse carfentanil overdoses due to its heightened lethality.

Another indicator about the seriousness of that problem is the climbing number of overdoses in Edmonton supervised consumption sites, where those episodes are more likely to be reversed, he said.

Some experts in the field say the COVID-19 pandemic has deepened the opioid crisis by increasing isolation, diverting medical resources and heightening overall mental health pressures.

Petra Schulz doesn’t take much comfort in the latest fatality numbers, noting the province remains struggling with its worst year of the crisis.

And the woman, whose 25-year-old son Danny died of a fentanyl overdose in 2014, said the provincial government has been too reluctant to take urgent steps in saving lives, particularly in its hostility towards supervised consumption sites.

“We’re in a crisis and we have to focus first on keeping people alive,” said Schulz.

“Treatment is not the solution to the overdose crisis.”

She said the province should re-open supervised consumption sites it’s closed in overdose hotspots of Edmonton and Lethbridge and pledge to keep the sole Calgary facility operating.

And the province should follow in the footsteps of provinces like B.C. in supplying alternative pharmaceutical drugs to ensure a safer supply, said Schulz.

“Alberta is an outlier in not having a safe supply program,” she said.

On Thursday, the UCP government said it’s “exploring options for new supervised consumption services (SCS) in underserved areas of Edmonton” though they didn’t provide a timeline for the opening of any new facility.

“For people in Edmonton who do not use at home, having supervised consumption services outside of the downtown core will make these services more accessible,” Mike Ellis, associate minister of mental health and addictions

“This additional overdose prevention capacity in Edmonton will help reduce the harms of drug use.”

It also announced the introduction of the Digital Overdose Response System (DORS) – a mobile app that activates an alert to the STARS emergency centre when a timer is triggered by when an opioid user is unresponsive.

It’s available in Edmonton at

Schulz said the province wasted several months by ignoring existing overdose alert services which likely cost numerous lives.

Twitter: @BillKaufmannjrn