05 Jul Grande Prairie leads province in fentanyl deaths per capita
Grande Prairie started the year with the highest per capita rate of accidental fentanyl-related poisoning deaths in Alberta, says a provincial opioid surveillance report.
From Jan. 1 to March 31, Grande Prairie had 11 fentanyl-related poisoning deaths with the rate calculated at 59 per 100,000 population. Last year, Grande Prairie had 34 deaths of this type in total.
“The numbers for use are really shocking because it’s not our street-engaged population people who are dying,” said Melissa Byers, executive director of the Northreach Society. “This report—from our organization’s perspective— just kind of gives us things to question and things to really look at.”
Formerly named HIV North, Northreach is a not-for-profit group that provides a variety of services to Grande Prairie and northern Alberta, such as outreach, distributing Naloxone, needle disposal and community education and training about drug use.
Byers explained that Northreach did not know the profiles of the 11 individuals who died from fentanyl-related poisoning early 2019. She hoped that Alberta Health, which authored the report, could provide more details about the background of these victims.
“This is kind of a different number for us because it’s not the people that we’re supporting,” Byers said.
While Alberta Health was unable to provide specific details about Grande Prairie not already in the opioid report, Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw stated that opioid deaths occur across numerous sectors of the province.
“It’s not just one group that’s affected,” Hinshaw said. “There are multiple different segments of society that are impacted and anyone who uses drugs that they sourced from the street for any reason would be at risk of fentanyl overdose.”
The report also had a map of the city that showed the general areas that lethal fentanyl overdoses were most concentrated. While the hottest spots tended to be around hotels, Byers explained that many of the spots were within suburban areas.
“That just also points to the stigmatization of drug use and hidden drug use and how dangerous that is,” she said. “More community education is needed.”
Grande Prairie came in second for the highest rate per capita of EMS responses to opioid related events at 65 responses. Lethbridge came in first.
“It’s good that people are calling EMS, I think that’s great, but it also says to me that the (drug) supply in Grande Prairie is maybe unsafe,” Byers said. “And people are maybe using alone or they’re not using harm-reduction principals when they are engaging.”
Byers stated that overdose victims in Grande Prairie are most often young males in their late 20s or early 30s.
“Potentially, we need to be doing some more drug education,” she added. “I imagine the EMS calls points to the state of drug use in our community and it’s alarming.”
The city’s rate was higher than the provincial average. Hinshaw noted that EMS response rates fluctuate in rough correlation with the overdose rate.
“If there’s a batch of illicit drugs with a particularly high concentration of fentanyl, we would expect to see that the EMS calls would go up at the same time the risk of death—and in this case Grande Prairie’s numbers and rates—have also gone up,” she said.
Supervised drug consumption
The mobile supervised drug consumption site in Grande Prairie had 2,326 visits and reversed 47 overdoses between its March 11 opening and the end of June.
Operated by Northreach, the mobile site caters towards street-level users and is located near Rotary House. Byers stated that the site has also gotten supported 133 unique individuals and offered referrals for 287 visits.
“The population that we’re supporting, we’ve had no deaths,” Byers said. “And the population that generally accesses supervised consumption services isn’t going to be your typical middle-class individual who’s housed or your person who’s just got off shift and is staying in a hotel.”
“It’s that hidden population, that hidden drug culture,” she added. “Generally, they’re not going to leave their houses to use drugs in a stable location.”
Hinshaw said it was too early to tell how much of an impact Grande Prairie’s supervised drug consumption site had on the rate of lethal fentanyl overdoses.
Another method of addressing the opioid crisis is the distribution of Naloxone, a fast-acting drug that temporarily reverses the effects of opioid overdoses.
Multiple groups are currently distributing Naloxone in Grande Prairie with Northreach alone handing out 1,702 kits so far this year between January and May.
“There’s a massive uptake of the community-based Naloxone program but then people also have to go and access them,” Byers said.
As of the first quarter, 146,892 naloxone kits have been distributed across the province through Alberta Health Services’ program since Jan. 1, 2016.
Across the province
Meanwhile, the big cities continue to have the highest actual number of fentanyl-related poisoning deaths with Calgary at 51 and Edmonton at 31.
Overall, 137 Albertans died from accidental fentanyl-related poisonings in the first quarter of 2019, which is a decrease from the 160 deaths in the previous quarter.
Alberta also had 66 accidental opioid-related poisoning deaths that were non-fentanyl during its first quarter. One death of this type occurred in Grande Prairie.
In 2018, 789 Albertans died from accidental opioid-related poisoning in 2018. Most deaths occurred in major municipalities such as Grande Prairie.
“The key message for me is that the more we understand that addition issues cut across all segments of society, the more we can be compassionate, the better off we’ll all be,” Hinshaw said.