A group of Edmonton physicians says the Alberta government's overhaul of harm reduction supports for people who use drugs is needlessly straining acute-care resources as COVID-19 demands grow.
Members of the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association's opioid poisoning committee have penned a letter to Premier Jason Kenney, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other health and addictions officials calling for emergency action to address what they call a drug poisoning crisis.
The association says communities do not have adequate resources to respond to spiking drug overdoses, so people who face adverse reactions are needing help from first responders, emergency departments and intensive care units more often.
The group is recommending two emergency actions: expanding access to injectable opioid agonist treatment programs and bolstering supervised consumption and overdose prevention services.
"We know that Alberta’s current approach to the drug poisoning crisis unnecessarily strains acute-care resources and is directly contributing to an increasing number of deaths," the letter says.
"In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the above emergency policy actions are life-saving not only for people who use drugs, but for all Albertans in need of intensive care."
Under Kenney's leadership, the province has limited access to injectable treatments, which can be used for people for whom oral therapies using the drugs methadone or suboxone have been unsuccessful.
The government was taken to court for its decision to close clinics specializing in the injectable treatment, but later committed to continue funding for existing clients.
The province also forced the closure of a supervised consumption site in Lethbridge, Alta. — at one time the busiest in North America — and has plans to close Calgary's site, but with the promise of two new locations, which have yet to be announced.
More than 145 people and 18 organizations from across Canada — including the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, Moms Stop the Harm and Protect Our Province Alberta — have signed the letter in support.
Dr. Ginetta Salvalaggio, co-chair of the opioid committee, said every aspect of health care in Alberta is strained right now. Major components of triage have already begun, which means some critically ill patients may not get the help they need.
"Right now, we're just worried that the response is going to be slower and, like other Albertans, (people who overdose) may not be able to get life-saving care when they need it," said Salvalaggio, an associate professor in the University of Alberta's Faculty of Medicine.
People who initially survive a severe drug poisoning could end up requiring intensive care, but won't benefit if the response time is delayed, she explained.
"There are some pretty easy wins here to alleviate some of that strain," said Salvalaggio. "There are amazing experts in the community that can help with more timely overdose responses."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 24, 2021.
Alanna Smith, The Canadian Press