My response to Mike Ellis on Alberta’s opioid deaths

The associate minister of addictions seems to think that the pandemic is to blame for Alberta’s record numbers of drug-related deaths.

Mike Ellis, who took over from Jason Luan last July as Alberta’s associate minister over mental health addiction, issued a statement last week on deaths in 2021 related to the drug crisis.

There are a few things in his statement that I thought needed clarification.

Alberta is in the midst of an addiction crisis that is being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and related restrictions. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, opioid-related fatalities have increased across the country, with public health restrictions having a negative impact on people with addiction.

First, it’s really odd that he uses the phrase “addiction crisis”. Most everywhere else calls it the opioid crisis, opioid epidemic, or even just drug crisis.

For example, if you search for “opioid crisis”, Google returns 9.68 million results. They give you just under 1 million results when you change it to “drug crisis”. And when you change it to “addiction crisis”? 552,000.

As far as the second part of that paragraph goes, it is true that opioid-related results have increased since the pandemic. What Ellis isn’t saying, however, is that it isn’t just the pandemic that’s causing high death levels.

Here, look at this chart from the Alberta substance use surveillance system showing drug-related deaths in Alberta over the last 4 years.

The provincial government implemented gathering restrictions in March 2020, and ever since then, the number of drug deaths has increased.

In fact, since May 2020, drug deaths have never dropped below 113. During the fours years prior to May 2020, however, deaths surpassed 100 only twice.

Between May 2020 and October 2021, Alberta has averaged 134 drug-related deaths a month. In the first half of those 18 months, the average was 132.3 deaths. In the last half, it was 135.8 deaths.

In the 6 months ending October 2021, deaths averaged 141.8 per month. During the same period in 2020, the average was 130.5.

When public health restrictions were at their strictest in Alberta—during the first few months of the pandemic—deaths were lower, on average, than they are now, when restrictions are looser.

It’s not just the health restrictions driving the increases in drug-related deaths, but Ellis doesn’t list any other causes for the increase, leaving the reader to assume the pandemic is to blame.

Data now shows that the fourth wave in September and October has only further fuelled opioid-related fatalities. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner reported 146 opioid-related fatalities in September and 148 in October. This trend is being seen in other jurisdictions, including British Columbia where 201 suspected overdose deaths were recorded in October alone.

It’s true that deaths have increased in September and October 2021. Here’s a graph of opioid-only deaths:

Clearly, they’ve increased. In fact, they’re the highest they’ve ever been. But Ellis’ rhetoric that the fourth wave “further fuelled opioid-related fatalities” is misleading, again focusing on that one factor, as if no other factors played a significant role.

Here, let’s compare the number of opioid-related deaths in 2020 and 2021 with the waves of cases of COVID-19.

Look. There’s little correlation between the waves and the number of deaths.

While September and October 2021 had the highest number of opioid-related deaths, they didn’t have the highest number of COVID-19 cases.

Cases were highest during the third wave, during April and May 2021. Yet opioid-related deaths in April 2021 were the lowest they’ve been this year so far, and May had the fourth lowest number of deaths.

Not only that, but cases were slightly higher at the end of 2020, during the second wave, than they were during the fourth wave, yet deaths in November and December 2020 were the same as they were during the first wave, when cases were 1/6 the size.

If there was a strong correlation between COVID-19 cases and opioid-related deaths, we should see similar patterns between the two. But we don’t.

There is hope for those who struggle with this brutal illness. We know that recovery from addiction is possible and that when people have access to the appropriate treatment, recovery can be expected. Alberta is building a comprehensive recovery-oriented system of care that supports every Albertan in their pursuit of recovery. The system we are building ranges from prevention and intervention to treatment and recovery.

This right here is why Alberta’s drug-related deaths keep increasing.

The UCP government is focused almost entirely on addiction recovery as a solution to the drug crisis. The problem with this approach is that it only works for those who are ready for recovery, and even that isn’t a guarantee.

Recovery-based programmes do nothing to address drug supplies tainted with lethal ingredients due to border and import restrictions.

Recovery-based programmes do nothing to address people using alone in public parks, backyards, or downtown shipping docks.

Recovery-based programmes do nothing to address the trauma and poverty that turn people to drugs in the first place.

Alberta’s government has been doing everything it can to increase access to care by funding more than 8,000 annual treatment spaces, removing user fees for publicly funded addiction treatment, supporting medication-based treatment on demand and so much more.

Again, doing everything they can when it comes to recovery programmes. But when it comes to harm reduction, they don’t do everything they can. In fact, they do the bare minimum, and even that is being generous. Case in point:

Our approach also includes providing access to services that reduce harm such as overdose prevention services, increased access to naloxone, and the rollout of the Digital Overdose Response System.

The Digital Overdose Response System is an overdose prevention app available to only Calgary and Edmonton users. The “increased access to naloxone” refers to a nasal naloxone pilot restricted to just Edmonton.

And while it’s true that the government does technically provide access to overdose prevention services, they’ve reduced those services drastically since taking office.

Lethbridge, for example, went from 21 consumption booths (both inhalation and injection) to just 3. They also closed the Boyle Street SCS in Edmonton and plan to close Calgary’s only SCS (although they claim they’ll be replacing it with two new Calgary locations).

Plus, they cancelled previously announced plans for SCSs in Medicine Hat and Red Deer, as well as a mobile SCS in the Forest Lawn neighbourhood of Calgary.

There is no one solution to the illness of addiction, and we need the help of police, fire, EMS and civil society to tackle this crisis and help people get the care they need.

There’s no one solution to the drug crisis, but the UCP sure have a funny way of showing it.

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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.

5 replies on “My response to Mike Ellis on Alberta’s opioid deaths”

Recovery-based programmes do nothing to address the trauma and poverty that turn people to drugs in the first place.

I am not sure where you have information or lived experience to this regard. Recovery does treat trauma, and to a degree, incubated those suffering from poverty with a bed, food, community, programs and services available to them, post recovery housing, and other supports including job training and placement. All of which reduces social service strain and helps individuals out of recovery.

I applaud the government for doing more (beds/funding institutions). I also challenge them to do more, to keep going.

I was hopeful that you would have data to show the closing of consumption sites and its impact to the monthly opioid count. Did I miss that?

Across the world we are seeing theneffdct of Covid on numerous social issues – including addiction. The recent Indigenous report around opioids was alarming.

The Government is one part of many solutions to this crisis yesterday, today and tomorrow. I’m not sure if the current admin, which does not seemingly support harm reduction, grasps that. That being said they are putting a lot of resources towards being apart of themsouktion and I give them marks for that.

“Recovery does treat trauma, and to a degree, incubated those suffering from poverty with a bed, food, community, programs and services available to them, post recovery housing, and other supports including job training and placement.”

I think you misunderstand me. I’m talking about treating trauma before it leads to addiction. Same with poverty.

“I was hopeful that you would have data to show the closing of consumption sites and its impact to the monthly opioid count. Did I miss that?”

If you click on the link towards the end of the article regarding the Lethbridge SCS, you can find comprehensive data regarding SCS usage and its effect on deaths and EMS burden. It’s specific to Lethbridge though.

The only realistic solution for a majority of addicts, have all had their budgets slashed. Social welfare support, homelessness, education, living wage and mental health—especially to the minority with undiagnosed ADHD.

Addicts are in all economics of our society. Until society offers an alternative to a contaminated drug supply people will continue to die rich or poor. Cannot wait to see when the big announcement for treatment beds become more than words.

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