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New data confirms SCS usage may prevent drug deaths

New data for the first half of 2022, shows a relationship between SCS usage in Lethbridge and the number of drug deaths seen in Lethbridge.

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 second quarter 2022 data for deaths, hospitalizations, and supervised consumption site usage.

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

What I do in this article is break down the stats for deaths, hospitalizations, EMS responses, and SCS usage during the second 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 second quarter of 2022, 9 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 last year’s second quarter, Lethbridge had the second highest number of drug-related deaths it had seen since the province began tracking data in 2016. They were 2 fewer than what they were in 2020, which itself is the current record.

This year, however, first quarter deaths have dropped twice as quickly, sliding from 13 last year to 9 this year, a 30.78% decrease.

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

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

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

Well, sort of. May 2022 was tied with the previous two years with 5 drug deaths, which is the highest we have seen in any May since 2016. June’s 3 deaths was tied with 2018 for third highest. April, with just 1 reported drug death, is what really brought down the quarterly stat.

That follows a record first quarter.

The first three months of 2022 each 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

And while Lethbridge seeing a decline in total drug death in the second quarter compared to a record-breaking first quarter, we had the third highest rate of drug deaths per 100,000 person years of the 7 cities tracked by the province’s system.

AprMayJunQ2
Grande Prairie46.693.231.157.0
Edmonton67.350.547.155.0
Lethbridge11.859.235.535.5
Red Deer42.331.731.735.2
Calgary26.133.625.228.3
Medicine Hat34.217.117.122.8
Fort McMurray14.7029.414.7

Now let’s look at the number of deaths in the first half of 2022 in relation to total annual deaths over the previous 6 years.

Only halfway through the year, and 2022 already has the third highest number of drug deaths of any of the last 7 years. And if it sees just 3 more deaths over the next 6 months, it will move into second place.

If drug-related deaths continue at this rate, Lethbridge could potentially see over 90 deaths by the end of the year, an increase of over a third over the number seen last year, which is the current 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 2 more months left for the current 12-month period to be complete.

This also means that we have surpassed 100 drug-related deaths—126 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. Although it dropped to third place for this most recent quarter. The highest was the North Zone.

Q4 2020Q1 2021Q2 2021Q3 2021Q4 2021Q1 2022Q2
2022
North1958203123602423206419272239
South1627161019111907176916221575
Central1468148317381916157414741675
Edmonton1345138216681699159414751500
Calgary1328137614061531143312661153
visits per 100,000

Those numbers are consistent with previous years.

As far as general hospitalizations go, the South Zone came in fourth place, behind the Central Zone, North Zone, and Edmonton Zone. Usually, however, it sits in third place.

Q4 2020Q1 2021Q2 2021Q3 2021Q4 2021Q1 2022Q2
2022
Central694729742814700719704
South639679693655546491445
North633695707632523520528
Edmonton516530593580559514474
Calgary472468488489502433370
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 2022, as I reported in August, the number of calls Lethbridge EMS responded continued the decline seen in March. However, the number of calls jumped at the end of the quarter.

20182019202020212022
Jan1425101440
Feb391782341
Mar1913144317
Apr4112151412
May3816202812
Jun3520492721
186103116149143

Because of the low number of calls in April and May, the second quarter of 2022 saw the fewest EMS responses to opioid-related events than any other second quarter since 2018. And it was the third lowest of all quarters during that period.

20182019202020212022
Q17255328098
Q211448846945
Q37754112136
Q477397397

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 June 2022, EMS have responded to 240 events already, passing the 2018–2019 year, and there are still 2 months left.

That averages out to about 20 per month. If that rate continues over the next 2 months, Lethbridge EMS may see 280 events, the second highest since 2018.

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 second quarter of 2022, the mobile SCS van saw 14,229 visits. Here’s how that compares to the second quarter in previous years.

The number of SCS visits has increased during the second quarter of the last two years, but it’s 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), but also rising over the last two years.

Except, while the number of visits and the number of visitors rose in the second quarter of 2022, the number of visits per visitor actually dropped to its lowest level of any second quarter since 2018.

So, while both the number of visitors and the number of visits have increased in the second quarter of 2022, compared to the previous two second quarters, 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 second quarter of 2022 saw the third lowest visit per visitor rate (38.3) of any quarter since the UCP defunded the SCS. The lowest was in the 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.

These new numbers add nearly two 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 journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news stories, focusing on politics and labour.

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