'This is a health issue': How Edmonton should tackle its opioid crisis

· The Pulse

The pandemic has worsened Edmonton's opioid crisis — supervised consumption sites are overwhelmed with demand and overdose deaths continue to climb.

The Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association announced a new Opioid Poisoning Committee on Sept. 9, and the University of Alberta's Elaine Hyshka is calling on the City of Edmonton to also take more steps to combat the epidemic.

"We've never seen anything as severe as the current situation," Hyshka told Taproot's Speaking Municipally. "So far in 2021, the numbers are looking like things are not getting better. We're expecting to see a very high death toll by the end of this year."

In the first three weeks of August 2021, Edmonton's Emergency Medical Services (EMS) responded to 305 opioid-related emergencies, compared to 220 at the same time in 2020.

Hyshka, an assistant professor of health policy and management, said that while the city has made strides to assist Edmontonians struggling with substance use in the form of supportive housing, there is more work to be done.

"This is not a crisis of addiction that needs to be treated with residential treatment beds or addiction treatment programs," Hyshka explained.

Instead, she said those struggling with substance abuse need to have access to a full spectrum of care, including evidence-based treatment options like pharmaceutical opiates and heroin.

"Every time the government, whether it be the federal or provincial level, says that the way to fix this issue is to fund treatment, it demonstrates that they fundamentally misunderstand the situation," Hyshka said.

"The reality is people are dying long before they have an option to seek those treatment programs. You cannot recover from a substance use disorder if you don't have a pulse."

Hyshka also wants to see the city re-direct more resources towards supportive housing initiatives and advocate for the provincial decriminalization of drug possession.

"When we (call) this a health issue and not a criminal justice issue, that also would go a long way towards encouraging people to be more open about their substance use," she added.

A photo of naloxone kits on a backpack.

The Bissell Centre distributed naloxone kits as part of the International Overdose Awareness Day march and rally in August. (Scarlet Bjornson/Instagram)

Hyshka said naloxone kits are a must for residents and businesses, particularly in areas where overdoses are more common. Local organizations and harm reduction agencies currently provide kits and training to the public.

She acknowledged that while approaching an unconscious individual may be uncomfortable, doing so could save a life.

"I couldn't live with myself if I had an opportunity to be with somebody that was potentially about to die and I didn't take it because I thought they're different or was afraid," Hyshka said.

"I think that that helps get past that stigma. This is a health crisis, and people are dying, and you as an individual citizen have an opportunity."

If the city commits to more funding for evidence-based harm reduction treatment, Hyshka is optimistic the risk of death would significantly decline.

"The key here is to continue to expand treatment options," Hyshka told Taproot. "Give everybody the options that they need … if they are struggling with substance use."