Data from the provincial government shows Edmonton paramedics have been responding to more opioid-related events than their counterparts in Calgary — a trend that has been consistent for the past two years.
The number of EMS responses to opioid-related events in Edmonton surged ahead of those in Calgary in 2021 and though overall numbers have decreased since their peaks that year, the discrepancy between the two cities has remained ever since.
According to the province's substance use surveillance website, EMS in Edmonton responded to 3,477 opioid-related calls last year while EMS in Calgary responded to 1,761 — nearly half as many.
EMS responses to opioid-related events have remained higher in Edmonton for each week of 2023.
"Folks are actually going from call to call to call their entire shift, and this is all they are dealing with — overdose after overdose after overdose," said Mike Parker, the president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta. The HSAA is a union that represents paramedics and other health professionals.
Parker said opioid-related calls are responsible for a large chunk of the strain on EMS and Alberta's health care system.
According to a report released Thursday by the Canadian Institute for Health Information, substance use disorders were the fifth most responsible diagnosis for inpatient hospitalizations across the country in 2021-2022. In Alberta, they were the third most responsible diagnosis for 7,809 inpatient hospitalizations during the same time period.
Drug poisoning deaths last year disproportionately affected men, with the most deaths occurring among 35-to-39-year-olds.
Parker said his members are trained to make life and death decisions, but repeatedly witnessing "senseless deaths" of young people weighs on them.
Dr. Ginetta Salvalaggio, a professor with the University of Alberta's department of family medicine, said many factors could be contributing to the difference in EMS opioid-related responses between Alberta's biggest cities.
She ruled out differences in access to opioid agonist treatments or other forms of care — and regional differences in prescribing.
"There's no evidence to suggest that one group of nurse practitioners and physicians are prescribing differently in Edmonton compared to Calgary," she said.
She said macroeconomic trends, like access to employment and housing, could be influencing the statistics.
"If you look at the data, the houseless in Edmonton are particularly affected, more disproportionately affected, by opioid poisoning deaths than they are in Calgary," Dr. Salvalaggio said.
According to recent counts by the Calgary Homeless Foundation and Edmonton's Homeward Trust, there are about 2,800 people experiencing homelessness in each city.
Both Dr. Salvalaggio and Parker suggested the closure of a supervised consumption site in Edmonton could have something to do with the city's higher number of opioid-related EMS events.
Colin Aitchison, with the Ministry of Addiction and Mental Health, said another supervised consumption site expanded its operations in Edmonton so there was no reduction in service capacity in the city.
He said the government is exploring new supervised consumption service locations in Edmonton, including one in the Strathcona neighbourhood.