A handheld device showing the loading screen for the Alberta Digital Overdose Response System mobile application is shown alongside a pair of Narcan nasal injectors in a photo illustration in Toronto, Monday, Dec. 6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Giordano Ciampini

A handheld device showing the loading screen for the Alberta Digital Overdose Response System mobile application is shown alongside a pair of Narcan nasal injectors in a photo illustration in Toronto, Monday, Dec. 6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Giordano Ciampini

‘Maddening, heartbreaking’: Alberta records deadliest year for drug overdoses in 2021

Most fatal overdoses are linked to opioids and took place in Calgary and Edmonton

Alberta recorded its deadliest year on record for drug overdoses with more than 1,700 deaths in 2021.

The province released data late Thursday showing 176 people died in both November and December, bringing the yearly total to 1,758.

Not only did both months hit grim milestones – the highest single-month totals ever – but they capped off the worst year since Alberta began collecting data in 2016.

“I don’t even have words for it. Heartbreaking doesn’t feel strong enough,” said Patty Wilson, a Calgary nurse practitioner who works on the front line.

“It’s maddening. It’s rage-inducing. It’s heartbreaking. It feels like your efforts on the front line feel futile because you know what you’re doing isn’t enough. It’s all of those things and even more.”

Most fatal overdoses are linked to opioids and took place in Calgary and Edmonton. But Lethbridge had the highest rate of drug poisoning deaths in those final two months, more than doubling the provincial average.

The death toll increased last year by 29.5 per cent compared to 2020, and by 120 per cent when compared to 2019.

Some experts have said the COVID-19 pandemic magnified the emergencybut also point to the province’s addictions strategy as a reason for the dramatic rise.

Wilson said she would like to see the government address it as a drug poisoning crisis instead of an addiction crisis.

“We need to replace the poison with something that’s not poisonous,” said Wilson, adding there is a need for safe supply programs, which offer safer alternatives to street-level drugs.

An increase in supervised consumption sites and access to proven services, like injectable opioid agonist therapy, could also help curb needless deaths, she said.

The United Conservative Party government is focused ona recovery-oriented strategy. Access to an opioid dependency program and drug-use sites has been limited.

Mike Ellis, associate minister of mental health and addictions, announced Friday an expansion to its overdose response mobile application and virtual opioid dependency program in Medicine Hat.

Ellis said there is a need for treatment and recovery servicesat the forefront.

“The answer’s not more drugs. The answer is not keeping people in a perpetual state of pain and suffering,” he said. “People have a right to access treatments. People have a right to access recovery.”

Ellis also announced $825,000 for Our Collective Journey, a Medicine Hat organization that addresses addiction and mental health challenges in the community.

Wilson said the government’s response to the crisis is not enough. If it were, deaths wouldn’t be skyrocketing, she added.

The Opposition New Democrats slammed the UCP, calling the government’s approach to rising overdose deaths a “deadly and catastrophic failure.”

Lori Sigurdson, the NDP critic for mental health and addictions, said in a statement that Ellis and the UCP have failed not only those who have died and their loved ones but health-care, outreach and emergency workers who see the devastation first-hand.

“Albertans cannot trust the UCP to protect lives and deploy an effective, science-based response to this public health crisis,” said Sigurdson.

“What has to happen before they admit this approach has utterly failed?”

—Alanna Smith, The Canadian Press

RELATED: ‘Death trap’: Front-line workers warn of drug overdoses rising on and off the streets

RELATED: Alberta in talks to open overdose prevention sites

overdose crisis

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