The death toll from Alberta's opioid crisis rivals that of COVID-19 but is largely being neglected by the province, says a group of Edmonton doctors advocating for improved addictions care.
Physicians with the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association announced a new opioid poisoning committee this week in response to the increasing number of overdose deaths in Alberta — and what its members characterize as politically-motivated cuts to addiction services.
"This is an emergency that cannot continue to be ignored," the group said in a statement Wednesday. "Our committee will advocate for the needs of our patients and community."
Members say the government of Premier Jason Kenney has shown "a clear lack of leadership and support" in response to the deepening crisis, and that the medical needs of addicted Albertans are being ignored.
"As the situation in Alberta becomes graver, there is need for physician leadership, which is not influenced by politics or stigma," the group said in its statement.
The committee said opioids have proved nearly as deadly as COVID-19.
In 2019, 624 Albertans died of opioid poisoning, it said.
In 2020, that number surged to 1,154, with an average of four Albertans dying every day from overdoses.
Also in 2020, 1,211 Albertans died of COVID-19.
This year, Edmonton saw a midsummer spike in drug poisonings, prompting calls to action from many in the community to address the ongoing crisis. During one week in July, EMS received over 100 opioid-related calls in the city.
The government's approach to addiction services has often put it at odds with advocates on the front lines.
Kenney has long rejected the harm-reduction model of care. His government has moved to shutter some established supervised consumption sites.
In 2020, the province closed North America's busiest supervised consumption service — in Lethbridge — following an audit.
Alberta instead committed to the construction of five recovery communities across the province.
The government cut funding for an injectable opioid agonist treatment program in 2020. This year, after a lawsuit was filed, patients with the last-resort program were transferred to another, similar harm-reduction program under a two-year grant. New intakes were halted.
The province is now facing a separate lawsuit over new ID requirements that would require supervised consumption sites to collect health-card information from clients, a move advocates say will hamper access.
Led by Dr. Ginetta Salvalaggio and Dr. Cheryl Mack, the opioid poisoning committee includes physicians from various disciplines including public health, intensive care, emergency medicine and infectious diseases.
Salvalaggio said the committee will advocate for evidence-based care, make recommendations to government on addiction care policy, and raise public awareness of the impact of opioid poisonings on the broader health-care system.
'Sick and tired of seeing preventable deaths'
"For myself, but also for many of my colleagues, we bear witness to people's lives every day and we are very, very sick and tired of seeing preventable deaths happen," Salvalaggio said in an interview Thursday.
"We just want to see some more action on this."
She said the death toll and the pressure that the opioid crisis are placing on the health-care system needs to be acknowledged. Funding for addiction programs needs to be increased, and any planned cuts to harm reduction services such as supervised consumption sites need to be reversed, she said.
She said she sees the impact of the crisis every day at her Edmonton clinic.
"These deaths are horrible for our communities and for our families; many of us are grieving," she said. "It affects all of us.
"I'm seeing a lot of grief and a lot of fear in my patients."