Alberta Premier Jason Kenney shakes hands with Jason Luan, associate minister of mental health and addictions after being sworn into office in Edmonton on April 30, 2019. Alberta Health says 449 people have died from opioid overdoses in the province during the first six months of this year. The numbers, which were released today in the second quarter Opioid Response Surveillance Report, show 301 of those deaths happened between April and June 2020. Associate Minister Jason Luan says the COVID-19 pandemic has led to increased fear and anxiety, isolation and job uncertainty. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Hundreds die from opioid overdoses in Alberta as COVID-19 pandemic hit

Jason Luan said the province is not alone in seeing a rise in deaths,

Alberta Health says 449 people died from opioid overdoses in the province during the first six months of this year.

The numbers, which were released Wednesday in the second-quarter Opioid Response Surveillance Report, show 301 of those deaths happened between April and June 2020.

“Beginning in March 2020, the number of harms associated with opioid use began to increase significantly, reaching record levels not previously seen,” said the report. “This sharp rise was in conjunction with a decrease in the utilization of treatment and harm reduction services.”

Jason Luan, associate minister of Mental Health and Addictions, said in a news release that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to increased fear and anxiety, isolation and job uncertainty.

“This has exacerbated the struggles of many Albertans, including those struggling with substance use,” he said.

Luan said the province is not alone in seeing a rise in deaths, noting British Columbia also reported similar findings and trends during the first few months of the pandemic.

Elaine Hyshka, an assistant professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta, said she expected to see more deaths in Alberta based on trends in other provinces, but not so many more.

“To see 301 deaths in a three-month period is staggering,” said Hyshka, noting the previous record in the province was 211 deaths in three months.

She said COVID-19 is definitely playing a role.

“We’ve heard and seen growing evidence of disruptions in illegal drug supply in terms of border closures and other factors that are leading to more dangerous drugs for sale on the streets,” she said. “We’ve also seen reductions in the number of people seeking care in harm reduction services and treatment clinics.”

She added, however, that the Alberta government has also shifted away from a co-ordinated public health response to the overdose epidemic.

“I worry that the impacts that that has had on harm reduction services like supervised consumption sites, on treatment programs … is also taking a toll,” said Hyshka.

“These deaths are 100 per cent preventable.”

The Opposition NDP said the dramatic rise in the number of preventable deaths in 2020 reverses a downward trend from the middle of 2018.

“These are shocking numbers,” Heather Sweet, the critic for mental health and addiction, said in a statement. “More Albertans have died from an opioid overdose in the last three months than in the entirety of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Alberta Health has reported a total of 260 deaths from the novel coronavirus.

Sweet said the single most important responsibility of any government is to protect human life, but Alberta’s United Conservative government “is turning away from scientific evidence and medical best practices and returning to a failed ‘War on Drugs’ approach.”

Luan said the government’s focus on recovery-oriented services seemed to be having a positive impact prior to the pandemic and noted it has since put money into mental health and addiction recovery supports.

Colette Derworiz, The Canadian Press

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