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Lethbridge saw record drug deaths in 1st quarter of 2022

Lethbridge drug-related deaths have surpassed the 100 mark since the SCS was shut down due to government defunding.

Earlier this month, the Government of Alberta updated the Alberta substance use surveillance system, an online tool they released in 2020 to track data regarding drug and alcohol use in the province.

The update includes first quarter 2022 data for hospitalizations and supervised consumption site usage.

I wrote an article on first quarter EMS responses back in April.

What I do in this article is break down the stats for deaths, hospitalizations, EMS responses, and SCS usage during the first quarter of 2022, compare them to previous years, and see if there’s a correlation between SCS usage and the rate of deaths and EMS responses.

Deaths

During the first quarter of 2022, 37 people had been reported to have died from “drug poisoning”. Here’s how the first quarter’s death numbers compare to those of previous years.

During last year’s first quarter, Lethbridge had the highest number of drug-related deaths it had seen since the province began tracking data in 2016. They were 50% higher than what they were in 2019, which itself had been the previous record.

This year, however, first quarter deaths more than double, jumping from 15 last year to 37 this year, a 147% increase.

As you can see from the graph, this is the largest number of deaths of any first quarter since at least 2016.

Now, let’s break the quarter numbers by month.

The first quarter of 2022 saw a record number of drug deaths because the months in that quarter saw record numbers of drug deaths.

All three months saw the highest number of deaths than the same months in an previous year since at least 2016. Not only that but two of the months—January and February—saw numbers in the double digits, something only seen one time before, last November.

Plus, February not only hit a record high of 19 for any other February since 2016, but that new high was also the highest number of deaths of any month since 2016, not just Februarys.

And speaking of February, take a look at the rate of drug-related deaths per 100,000 person years for February 2022 among the cities Alberta’s reporting tool includes:

Lethbridge225.0
Red Deer63.5
Edmonton61.7
Calgary52.9
Medicine Hat51.4
Grande Prairie15.5
Fort McMurray0.0

Now let’s look at the number of first quarter deaths in relation to total annual deaths over the previous 6 years.

Only 3 months into the year, and 2022 already is tied for the third highest number of drug deaths of any of the last 7 years.

If drug-related deaths continue at this rate, Lethbridge could potentially see nearly 150 deaths by the end of the year, more than twice the number seen last year, which was the previous record.

And remember, these are just deaths that have been certified by the medical examiner. It’s possible the number of deaths could’ve been even higher.

In September 2020, the Lethbridge supervised consumption site, which had been run by ARCHES, closed its doors following the UCP government’s refusal to renew funding.

During the first 12 months after the SCS had closed (September 2020 to August 2021), 49 people died from drug poisoning in Lethbridge. Here’s how that same period (September through August) compare to previous years.

That 2020–2021 period had the highest number of drug-related deaths compared to similar periods going back to 2016–2017. But we’ve already surpassed that record this year, despite the fact that we have 5 more months left for the current 12-month period to be complete.

This also means that we have surpassed 100 drug-related deaths—120 to be precise—since the SCS was shut down due to government defunding.

Finally, Lethbridge’s average monthly deaths for the September–August period has increased compared to similar 12-month periods of previous years, as seen below, more than doubling.

Hospitalizations

As far as hospitalizations go, the Alberta substance use surveillance system doesn’t delineate to the city level; it doesn’t get any more granular than the health zone level, so the data below is for the South Zone, which includes not only Lethbridge but also Medicine Hat, as well as pretty much all of Southern Alberta south of Calgary.

The South Zone consistently had the second highest emergency department visit rate related to substance use of all 5 health zones in nearly each of the 6 quarters since the UCP defunded the Lethbridge SCS. The highest was the North Zone.

Q4 2020Q1 2021Q2 2021Q3 2021Q4 2021Q1 2022
North195819602270233220421886
South162716051904190017641621
Central146814431691186015461449
Edmonton134513671637167417731584
Calgary132813551382150214121259
visits per 100,000

Those numbers are consistent with previous years.

This is the second quarter, however, where they were in third place regarding emergency departments. That being said, they were higher than they were in the fourth quarter of 2020.

As far as general hospitalizations go, the South Zone again came in third place, behind the Central Zone and Edmonton Zone.

Q4 2020Q1 2021Q2 2021Q3 2021Q4 2021Q1 2022
Central694707707757676692
South639677683645538553
North633670666556491514
Edmonton516520569542553562
Calgary472459477463475420
visits per 100,000

Remember, these numbers include not just Lethbridge, so it’s difficult to say if the UCP defunding the SCS affected emergency department visits or hospitalizations specifically at the Chinook Regional Hospital.

EMS responses

During the first quarter of 2022, as I reported in April, EMS responded to a record number of calls in both January and February, compared to the previous 4 years.

20182019202020212022
Jan1425101440
Feb391782341
Mar1913144317

Not only that, but the first quarter of 2022 saw the most EMS responses to opioid-related events than any other first quarter since 2018. In fact, it was the fourth highest number of any quarter during that period.

20182019202020212022
Q17255328098
Q2114488469
Q37754112136
Q477397397

The previous quarter—October through December of 2021—also saw record-breaking numbers of EMS responses..

As well, during the 12 months since the SCS closed down in August 2020, Lethbridge saw 358 opioid-related events that EMS have responded to. This is the highest number of such events during the same period over the previous 3 years.

Sep 2018–Aug 2019236
Sep 2019–Aug 2020269
Sep 2020–Aug 2021358

Between September 2021 and March 2022, EMS have responded to 230 events already, just 7 away from passing the 2018–2019 year, and there are still 5 months left.

That averages out to about 32.86 per month. If that rate continues over the next 5 months, Lethbridge EMS may see a new record of 394 events, and may even top 400.

SCS usage

And finally, we come to SCS usage.

Technically speaking, Lethbridge isn’t completely absent of any supervised consumption facilities. The UCP chose to replace the 21-seat (13 injection, 8 inhalation) supervised consumption site with a remodeled RV that has 3 seats. And that’s just for injection. It has no inhalation capacity, unlike the defunded SCS location.

During the first quarter of 2022, the mobile SCS van saw 12,157 visits. Here’s how that compares to the first quarter in previous years.

The number of SCS visits has increased since the first quarter of the previous year, but they are still dramatically lower than when the much larger facility was open.

The number of unique visitors per month isn’t much better, being at its third lowest level (technically).

And while it shouldn’t be that shocking that if SCS visits are low, unique visitors will be low, too, these aren’t the only SCS metrics that have dropped in the last year.

So, while both the number of visitors and the number of visits have both increased in the first quarter of 2022, compared to the previous first quarter, the average number of visits each person makes to the SCS van has dropped. Even though more people are visiting it than a year ago, they’re using it far less frequently.

And the first quarter of 2022 saw the second lowest visit per visitor rate (35.1) since the UCP defunded the SCS. The lowest was in the previous quarter (the fourth quarter of 2021), when the visit per visitor rate was only 22.3.

How SCS usage affects everything else

Now that we have all that data on the table, what relationships can we draw? Well, we can look at the difference in deaths and EMS responses when SCS usage is high and when it’s low to see if there is any sort of connection between the three.

Here’s the number of deaths:

Here’s the number of EMS responses:

What we see in these charts is that the more supervised consumption services are used in Lethbridge, the fewer substance-related deaths and EMS responses.

The higher the number of visits to the Lethbridge supervised consumption site, the lower the number of deaths and EMS responses. And the reverse is also true: as visits dropped, deaths and EMS responses increased.

That wasn’t quite the same for the number of visitors: the relationship between the number of visitors seemed to have little effect on deaths or EMS.

However, the frequency at which the average visitor used the SCS had an inverse relationship with both death and EMS responses. The more often the average visitor used the SCS, the lower the number of deaths and EMS responses, and like the first usage stats, the reverse was also true.

Defunding the SCS and replacing it with only 14% of its capacity is directly connected to more deaths in Lethbridge and a greater burden on Lethbridge’s emergency services.

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By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news stories, focusing on municipal, provincial, and federal politics, specializing in investigative journalism and critical analysis from a leftist political lens. He also writes regular editorials on general politics and social issues.

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