How the COVID-19 pandemic has affected Alberta’s opioid crisis

How the pandemic affected Alberta's opioid crisis

Did You Know that Canada experienced a 70% increase in opioid-related deaths between 2019 and 2020? In 2020, nearly 17 opioid-related deaths occurred every day in Canada. By the early months of 2021, nearly 20 Canadians were dying of opioid overdoses each day.

In Alberta, the opioid crisis continues to escalate year after year. In 2016, 685 Albertans lost their lives to opioid poisoning, and by October 2021, that number had climbed to 1,372.

What is the driving force behind this crisis?

Pandemic-related stresses, social isolation, mental illness and disrupted routines have led many people to turn to drug use as a coping mechanism. Simultaneously, the border and travel restrictions that were necessary to help flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases unfortunately resulted in a more erratic and volatile supply of unregulated opioids and other drugs. These factors, compounded by a lack of accessibility for addiction treatment, mental health resources, and harm reduction services, have created a tragic situation that touches nearly every community in Alberta.

Alberta currently has six supervised consumption sites in Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer, and Lethbridge. Supervised consumption services help reduce harms from substance use, including HIV, Hepatitis C, bacterial infections, and overdose death. While these can help in the short term, they are not a long-term solution. Until the stigma and shame surrounding drug dependency are eliminated, many Albertans will continue to suffer in silence. Many drug users try to hide their addiction, using opioids and other illicit substances in the privacy of their own homes. In the second quarter of 2021, 52% of opioid overdose deaths occurred in the victim’s permanent home, proving that the most dangerous way to use opioids is to use them alone.

What exactly are opioids?

Prescription opioids are drugs that treat moderate to severe or chronic pain by attaching to opioid receptors in the brain and changing the way a person perceives pain. These drugs can be incredibly addictive because they cause a release of the feel-good chemical dopamine in the brain. This can make the user feel relaxed and calm, even when they are in pain. Some examples include Codeine, Fentanyl, Morphine, Oxycodone, Oxymorphone, Oxycontin, Opana, Percocet, Vicodin, and Roxanol.

Unregulated opioids, such as heroin,  fentanyl, or carfentanyl are dangerous, heavily addictive substances. Using heroin produces feelings of pleasure or euphoria, but it also suppresses heart rate and breathing because of the way it acts on the central nervous system. Overdosing on opioids can stop a person’s breathing and lead to coma or even death. Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid pain reliever that is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. Using fentanyl repeatedly can diminish the brain’s ability to release and reuptake neurotransmitters associated with positive feelings. This creates a vicious cycle, where a person must take more and more of the drug just to feel normal.

What to do if someone in your life is suffering from addiction

If you suspect that someone you know may be suffering from drug addiction, starting an open, honest, non-judgemental dialogue with them is a good place to start.

If someone in your life is a drug user, there are telltale signs and symptoms of an overdose to watch for, such as:

  • Slow or no breathing
  • Unresponsive to voice or pain (can’t wake them up)
  • Pale face
  • Blue lips or nails
  • Gurgling or snoring sounds
  • Choking or vomiting
  • Cold and damp skin
  • Narrow (tiny) pupils
  • Stiff body or seizure-like movement

If you do witness an overdose:

  • Call 911
    • For those concerned about drug charges or arrests, Canada’s Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act protects those saving the life of someone who overdoses, the person experiencing the overdose, and anyone else at the scene of the overdose when help arrives.
  • If you have a naloxone kit, administer the medicine by following these instructions

Seeking treatment

EHN Canada facilities, including EHN Sandstone in Calgary, Alberta, have been guiding addiction recoveries for more than 100 years combined. Because addiction affects everyone differently, we treat every patient as a unique person with their own story and struggles. Our evidence-based approach includes detox, medication management, one-on-one and group therapy, psychoeducation, a family support program, mindfulness, exercise and nutritious, chef-prepared meals to help care for each patient’s physical, mental, spiritual and social wellbeing. We take a two-tiered approach to treatment, not only addressing the substance misuse at hand, but also digging deeper to unearth what caused the addiction in the first place, to prevent it from happening again. When the personalized treatment plan is completed, our patients receive one year of aftercare and lifelong access to EHN’s alumni network for continued support, which are both included in their program fees.

Public health wait times are long — if someone in your life needs addiction treatment now, we are ready to help. Don’t become a statistic. Call us today at 587-350-6818.

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