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Lethbridge hit record drug deaths in 2023

During the first 6 months of 2023, the Alberta government recorded 81 opioid-related deaths in Lethbridge. During all of 2022, there were 79, the previous high.

The Government of Alberta recently 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 second quarter 2023 data for deaths, hospitalizations, and supervised consumption site usage.

I wrote an article on second quarter EMS responses back in July.

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What I do in this article is break down the stats for deaths, hospitalizations, EMS responses, and SCS usage during the second quarter of 2023, 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 second quarter of 2023, 45 people had been reported to have died from “drug poisoning”. Here’s how the second quarter’s death numbers compare to those of previous years.

During the previous second quarter, Lethbridge had the fourth lowest number of drug-related deaths it had seen in any second quarter since the province began tracking data in 2016.

This past year, however, first quarter deaths have skyrocketed, quintupling sliding from just 9 in 2022 to 45 in 2023. As you can see from the graph, this is the largest number of deaths of any second quarter since at least 2016.

And by a long shot.

The next highest was only 15, set in the second quarter of 2020, and that’s just a third of what we saw this year.

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

The second quarter of 2023 saw a jump in the number of drug deaths because the months in that quarter saw higher numbers of drug deaths.

All three months, in fact, hit record numbers of drug deaths.

April’s new record of 21 bypassed the previous April record of 5, set back in 2018.

Even though May saw just 10 recorded opioid-related deaths, that, too, was a new record, bypassing the previous record of 5, which was set in May 2020 and tied in the following two Mays.

Finally, June’s 14 deaths were double the previous June record of 7, which had been reached in 2020.

Not only that, take a look at the rate of drug-related deaths per 100,000 person years for April 2023 among the cities Alberta’s reporting tool includes:

Lethbridge245.7
Red Deer73.1
Calgary62.8
Edmonton54.1
Medicine Hat50.9
Grande Prairie30.7
Fort McMurray29.0

During the second quarter, Lethbridge had the highest rate of drug deaths per 100,000 person years of the 7 cities tracked by the province’s system, driven primarily by a huge increases in April.

AprMayJunQ2
Lethbridge245.7117.0163.8175.5
Medicine Hat50.9101.950.967.9
Red Deer73.173.152.266.1
Calgary62.852.052.055.6
Edmonton54.147.553.051.5
Grande Prairie30.730.730.730.7
Fort McMurray29.014.529.024.2

Even then, Lethbridge’s death rate for May and June were still the largest in the province, by far. We had over 100 more people die per 100,000 person years during the second quarter than Medicine Hat, which had the second highest death rate in the second quarter.

Now let’s look at the number of deaths in 2023 in relation to total annual deaths over the previous 7 years. Keep in mind that 2023 includes data up to June only.

Last year had the highest number of drug deaths since 2016, continuing a worrying trend of record deaths in both 2020 and 2021. And that trend doesn’t look as though it’s going to reverse any time soon. We’re only 6 months into 2023, and Lethbridge has already set a new high for the number of annual drug deaths.

If deaths continue at this rate, we could see as many as 162 deaths by the end of the year. That means we’re currently on track to see more than double the record set last year.

We’ve averaged 13.5 drug-related deaths a month so far in 2023. Last year, the average was 6.6, which itself was higher than the average of 5.6 in 2021 and 4.0 in 2020.

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), 46 people died from drug poisoning in Lethbridge.

Here’s how that same period (September through August) in the second year following the closure compares 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 easily surpassed that record last year. We were just 4 deaths away from doubling the first year’s numbers.

This also means that we have surpassed 100 drug-related deaths—134 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, almost doubling.

And even though we still have 2 more months before we have complete data for the period between September 2022 and August 2023, our monthly average for that period is already at 10.6, on track to set a new record, unless deaths start to decline.

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 10 quarters since the UCP defunded the Lethbridge SCS. The highest was the North Zone.

Q4 2020Q1 2021Q2 2021Q3 2021Q4 2021Q1 2022Q2
2022
Q3 2022Q4 2022Q1 2023Q2 2023
North19582011232923962053191922582279210821232586
South16271597188518971748160815591656162317812026
Edmonton13451371163516661579145615131474152015321688
Central14681473172617291561145716651655152215001753
Calgary13281367139714891426124711471192121812371333
visits per 100,000

Those numbers are consistent with previous years.

As far as general hospitalizations go, the South Zone came in second place for the second quarter in a ro, behind the Central Zone. Usually, however, it sits in third place.

Q4 2020Q1 2021Q2 2021Q3 2021Q4 2021Q1 2022Q2
2022
Q3 2022Q4 2022Q1 2023Q2 2023
Central694725733805697721741718608521611
South639674682647543486495449511561570
Edmonton516527589575557514519494540521482
North633691687625521523564581570487477
Calgary472465483481502433417402429455429
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 second quarter of 2023, as I reported in July, the number of calls Lethbridge EMS responded continued the increase from those seen last June; although there was a dip in June.

201820192020202120222023
Jan142510144044
Feb39178234149
Mar191314431733
Apr411215141239
May381620281243
Jun352049272139
Jul3528565223
Aug2410424924
Sep1816143521
Oct2810153229
Nov2816384339
Dec2113202237

The second quarter of 2023 was the highest second quarter on record, as well as the third highest quarter overall since the start of 2018, with EMS responding to 126 drug-related events.

201820192020202120222023
Q17255328098126
Q211448846945121
Q3775411213668
Q47739739796

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
Sep 2021–Aug 2022322

Between September 2021 and August 2022, EMS responded to 322 events, passing the 2018–2019 year and 2019–2020 year. That averages out to about 26.8 per month.

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 secon quarter of 2023, the mobile SCS van saw 8,326 visits. Here’s how that compares to the second quarter in previous years.

The number of SCS visits increased during the second quarter of 2022 but it dropped in the second quarter of this year. Either way, each of the last 3 fourth quarters are dramatically lower than when the much larger facility was open.

Which is interest, given how much drug deaths has increased. But more on that in just a bit.

The number of unique visitors per month isn’t much better, being at its third lowest level (technically), but also higher over the last two years.

However, while the number of visitors rose in the first quarter of 2022, the number of visits per visitor actually decreased, but it was still at its second lowest level of any first quarter since 2018.

So, while the number of visitors increased in the second quarter of 2023, compared to the previous first quarter, the average number of visits each person makes to the SCS van has decreased. Even though more people are visiting it than a year ago, those who are using it do so less frequently.

On top, the second quarter of 2023 saw the second lowest visit per visitor rate (20.8) of any quarter since the UCP defunded the SCS. The lowest was in the the third quarter of 2020, the first quarter after the original SCS closed down, when the visit per visitor rate was only 19.5.

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.

These new numbers add nearly three more years of data to confirm the conclusion I made in 2020 that there is a relationship between SCS utilization and drug death numbers.

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 queer journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news articles, focusing on politics and labour.

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