At the end of April, the Alberta government updated the data contained in its Alberta Substance Use Surveillance System.
The online dashboard tracks various metrics related to substance use in the province, including deaths, EMS responses, supervised consumption site usage, and hospitalizations.
This is a limited data update, for just the first two months of 2021, and includes new data for only drug-related deaths and EMS data.
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Lethbridge saw 9 substance-related deaths during the first 2 months of 2021, up from the 6 reported in during the same period the year before.
In fact, this was the highest number of deaths seen during any January and February combined between 2016 and 2021. The next highest was 2019, which saw 8.
January 2021 itself had 5 deaths. This was tied with 2016 for the second-highest death count in a January since 2016. The highest was January 2019, at 6.
February, on the other hand, was tied for the highest February death count since 2016. The other year that saw 4 deaths in February was 2018.
According to the new system, these deaths include only those certified by the medical examiner. They don’t include “apparent fentanyl deaths”, which are deaths where fentanyl was present in the system of the person who died and “initial circumstances point to a likely drug poisoning death”.
It’s quite possible that Lethbridge has seen even more than 9 deaths related to substance use.
Calgary and Edmonton had, by far, more total deaths this year, putting Lethbridge at the 4th highest number of total deaths related to substance use. Red Deer was third at 11.
However, when we account for population, Lethbridge had the third highest death rate per 100,000 person years of the 7 communities included in the data.
Lethbridge’s death rate for the 2 months was 53.9, its highest rate since at least 2016. The next highest was in 2019, when the first two months of the year were at 48.2 per 100,000.
By comparison, Red Deer was highest, at 59, and Grande Prairie was second, at 55.1.
Here’s how the deaths break down by substance. Keep in mind that some of the people who died had multiple substances in their system, so these numbers add up to more than 46.
Lethbridge saw an average of 4.2 deaths per month in 2020 and a median of 4 deaths per month. Here’s what 2020 looks like compared to other years:
This record number of deaths follows a record number of deaths for the previous 4 months. In the 4 months following the closure of the supervised consumption site (September–December), Lethbridge saw more opioid-related deaths than we saw in the same period in any of the 4 previous years:
In fact, the monthly average for this 4-month period was the highest average for this period of any of the previous 4 years, even before the SCS opened.
If we add up all 6 months since the SCS closed, here’s how the number of deaths compares to the same 6-month period of previous years.
Before 2020–21, the average of this 6-month period among the previous 4 years was 11.75. The 2020–21 death count is roughly double the previous average. As well, this most recent 6-month death count is so high, that it increased the average among all years to 14.
Lethbridge saw 39 EMS responses to opioid-related events during the first 2 months of 2021. This is higher than the 21 we saw during the same period in 2019, but not as high as the 45 we saw in 2018. We saw a drop of 52.6% in EMS responses in January and February 2020 compared to 2019, but an increase of 85.7% in EMS responses for 2021 compared to 2020.
Lethbridge had the highest EMS response rate in the province in the fourth quarter of 2020. Local EMS responded to 234 opioid-related events per 100,000 between January and February 2020. The next highest community was Edmonton, at 216.5.
Clearly, this year had a lot more responses—even though it’s only 2 months in—but not as many as 2018.
Since the SCS closed down, Lethbridge has seen lower EMS response rates: 267 in September, 206 in October, 291 in November, 192 in January, and 276 in February. However, the EMS response rates are higher than they were during the previous 6-month period, 272 compared to 146.67. Also, at 400 responses, December saw the 3rd highest response rate since January 2018.