Edmonton Opioid Disaster: Day by day deaths, overdoses overwhelm social providers and healthcare programs

Edmonton’s opioid crisis is spiraling out of control, according to those who are closest to it, and people are dying every day.

“All along the line, we are seeing so many more patients with opioid poisoning,” said Dr. Shazma Mithani, ambulance doctor at the Royal Alexandra Hospital.

“We see an average of two deaths a day in Edmonton.”

Mithani said even in the past six months she had noticed that things had deteriorated dramatically while working at the central Edmonton hospital.

“We continue to see a steady increase … it seems like it’s only getting worse.”

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Dwight Barker lives one block from the Boyle McCauley Health Center, which is north of downtown on 96 Street near 106 Avenue.

He has not used drugs in almost a year and has made recovery one of the greatest achievements of his life – but opioids remain a constant, unwanted companion in his world.

Barker has used heroin and crystal meth in the past but said he would never touch fentanyl.

“It’s the scariest drug there is. By far I think so. The fentanyl is much stronger now than it was when I was on drugs. “

Dwight Barker at the Boyle McCauley Health Center.

Morgan Black / Global News

He rides his longboard through the McCauley neighborhood and says he sees the destruction of drugs like fentanyl everywhere.

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He hears ambulances in his back alley day and night.

He watched paramedics handle an overdose call at the Edmonton City Center mall, and seconds later spotted another crew around the corner.

He saw parishioners die.

“I lived on the street about a year ago. A lot of my friends have just disappeared … I don’t want to ask anyone about it because I don’t really want to know the ultimate truth. “

Redirection of resources in the inner city health center

Boyle McCauley Health Center staff had to reroute critical services such as maternity and diabetic care to keep up with the unprecedented levels of overdose.

Francesco Mosaico is the medical director of Boyle McCauley. He said the introduction of fentanyl to the city’s drug scene completely changed the care landscape.

“I think there is a sense of desperation among the customers that it affects and then the impact it has on the employees,” he said.

“This is an emergency. We have never seen numbers like this. We have never seen a more profound impact on the community and the resources required to respond.”

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From January 2020 to March 2021, the highest number of overdoses in a month was 20. In April, the numbers began to rise, peaking at 105 in June alone.

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Overdose Reactions at the Boyle McCauley Health Center.

Courtesy: Tonia Gloweski

Executive director Tricia Smith said saying the number out loud gave her the creeps.

“We’re only open five days a week, eight hours a day. We only have employees who answer these times. The number of overdoses that happen every hour over 40 hours a week for four weeks … it’s almost an hourly overdose, ”she said.

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Health center statistics provide a glimpse into the wider opioid crisis across the city.

Edmonton Fire Rescue Services has also seen a huge increase in overdose calls with crews helping.

In 2019, crews responded to more than 1,100 overdose calls. It doubled in 2020. In August 2021, EFRS had already reached more than 3,000 calls.

Overdose specific calls for EFRS.

Courtesy: Tonia Gloweski

These patients could then end up in the Mithani emergency room – the one closest to the heart of the city, where many social services are concentrated.

However, Smith says the opioid crisis extends beyond downtown.

“Overdoses happen all over town. It happens in the suburbs. It happens in people’s homes. Support is needed across the city in all areas. “

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Elaine Hyshka, assistant professor at the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health, said the government must cut off a supply of medicines that has become more dangerous to close borders since the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There are a lot of fentanyl and other non-synthetic opioids that are being traded from Mexico and heading north into Canada,” Hyshka said earlier this summer.

Drugs shipped through illegal channels are cut or adulterated to keep supplies going, she said.

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Mosaico said it believes there would be a markedly different response to the crisis if Edmonton saw this level of overdose or near fatality from another medical condition.

“Part of it is a little bit ideological and what we value as a community,” said Mosaico.

“I think what we don’t know is that this affects everyone. We are all interdependent for our wellbeing. It’s not just economy. It’s not just the humanitarian aspect. It is therefore important to respond to it as you would any other health crisis. “


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Signs of opioid poisoning include slow breathing or no breathing, insensitivity to voice or pain, gagging or vomiting, cold and clammy skin, tiny pupils or seizure-like movements, or rigid posture.

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Naloxone kits are free and available at over 2,000 community locations and pharmacies across the province.

Each kit comes with a rescue breathing mask that is placed on the person overdosing and used before the naloxone is injected. The kits contain three vials and needles that can be injected into the thigh or shoulder.

An information session on the use of naloxone kits was held at the Crestwood Community Center in Edmonton.

Sarah Komadina / Global News

– With files from Sarah Komadina, Global News and Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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