Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and related public health restrictions, jurisdictions across North America have been seeing record-high rates of opioid-related fatalities. Coming out of the pandemic in Alberta, opioid-related fatality data is beginning to show a significant decrease.
“While every loss of life is tragic, we are cautiously optimistic after seeing fatalities decrease in Alberta in March. We know that the COVID-19 pandemic and related restrictions caused addiction deaths to increase. We hope to see the fatality rates continue to decline as we recover from the pandemic and continue to implement strategies to address the addiction crisis.”
Fatality data breakdown
Opioid-related fatalities provincewide in March 2022 totalled 120 – the lowest number of fatalities on record since April 2021.
Within Alberta, opioid-related fatalities peaked in December (175) and decreased in March (120) – a decrease of 31 per cent.
The peak of opioid-related fatalities in December 2021 coincides with the peak of the Omicron wave of COVID-19 and related restrictions in December 2021 and January 2022. This trend was seen across jurisdictions in North America.
Within the City of Calgary, opioid-related fatalities peaked in February 2022 (63) and decreased in March 2022 (37). This represents a decrease of 41 per cent since the peak.
Within the City of Edmonton, opioid-related fatalities peaked in December 2021 (70) and decreased in March 2022 (38) – a decrease of 46 per cent.
“Pandemic restrictions caused a sharp increase in overdose deaths across Canada. I am encouraged to see the recent drop in Alberta. It is evidence that Alberta's focus on recovery is saving lives. The rest of the country should be watching as Alberta continues to implement its fully funded system.”
“As an Albertan in recovery from addiction, I experienced difficulties navigating the addiction care system. I now see first-hand the positive impact of changes being made by the province. Making treatment free and increasing treatment spaces means more Albertans are getting the care they need. I'm not surprised to see the recent drop in overdose deaths as a result.”
Emergency medical services response
Opioid-related EMS responses in the week of May 23, 2022, were also the lowest on record since the first week of April 2021. Opioid-related EMS responses peaked in the last week of November 2021 and, when compared with the last week of May, have declined 62 per cent.
Opioid agonist therapy (OAT)
The first quarter of 2022 saw more people prescribed evidence-based opioid agonist therapy (OAT) medications in Alberta.
More than 7,800 Albertans are accessing Suboxone, the gold standard in opioid treatment medication.
Use of Sublocade, the 30-day injectable version of Suboxone, is also increasing, with more than 680 Albertans accessing this innovative medication. This is a 260 per cent increase since third quarter 2021 when additional funding for the medication was announced.
Alberta Health Services Opioid Dependency clinics, including the award-winning Virtual Opioid Dependency Program, are seeing record numbers of monthly clients, with more than 3,700 clients in March 2022.
Alberta’s government is focused on increasing access to a range of prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery services. The system involves a coordinated network of government and non-profit partners working to improve outcomes for Albertans.
Work is already underway to build a recovery-oriented system of care and increase access to services. Actions to date include:
- Establishing 8,000 new publicly funded addiction treatment spaces and eliminating daily user fees so residential treatment is free.
- Introducing recovery communities, also known as therapeutic communities, to Alberta to provide holistic treatment to individuals experiencing addiction. Communities have been announced in Gunn, Red Deer, Lethbridge and on the Blood Tribe First Nation.
- Implementing licensing and quality standards for supervised consumption services to help ensure clients are better connected to the health-care system, to improve the quality of services that are being offered to people with addiction, and to improve community safety.
- Supporting services to reduce harm, such as the development of the Digital Overdose Response System (DORS) app, the introduction of a nasal naloxone pilot, expansion of opioid agonist therapy and fully covering the cost of the injectable opioid treatment drug Sublocade.
- Ensuring opioid addiction treatment on demand is available through the Virtual Opioid Dependency Program. Albertans anywhere in the province can get same-day access to evidence-based opioid agonist therapy (OAT) medications with no wait-list and no fees.
- Continuing work with police services and fire services to improve Albertans’ connection to recovery supports, including the Virtual Opioid Dependency Program, and providing first responders with the support they need to help respond to Albertans experiencing addiction and mental health challenges. This includes the implementation of the digital mental health tool HealthIM.
- The Alberta Substance Use Surveillance System is the most comprehensive data reporting tool in the country.