Edmonton responders struggling to keep up with opioid crisis, council hears

Edmonton police, firefighters and the province say they’re doing their best to keep up with the opioid crisis, city council heard Wednesday.

From January to September 2017, 120 people in Edmonton died of fentanyl overdose, according to a report presented to council Wednesday.

In Alberta, 482 people died from opioids in 2017 compared to 346 the year before — a 40 per cent increase.

“We are continuing to see high number of deaths that are related to opioid overdoses,” said Dr. Chris Sikora with Alberta Health Services. “We are also seeing still-high numbers of deaths that are related to fentanyl consumption overall.”

Edmonton fire crews have been trained to use naloxone, a medication that counters the effects of an overdose.

Fire Chief Ken Block said that since training started in February, firefighters have administered naloxone over 100 times, including nine times in January of this year. 

Police Insp. Shane Perka, front, and Edmonton fire Chief Ken Block give councillors an update on the opioid crisis Wednesday. (CBC)

“Sadly, it doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “We started to see the Alberta numbers climb about a year ago. Thankfully we’re nowhere near the Vancouver experience.”

Edmonton police Insp. Shane Perka told council it’s an ongoing challenge.

“It’s evolving quickly and we’re doing our best to try and keep up with that evolution,” he said. “It’s almost kind of a weekly or ongoing education for us in responding to it.”

Perka said police are seeing drug users experiment with different forms and derivatives of opioids and “variations of different doses.”

In the days before the fentanyl crisis, he said hard-drug users mixed cocaine and heroin, while now they’re mixing drugs like cocaine and fentanyl, making for a much more lethal blend. 

Dr. Chris Sikor.

Dr. Chris Sikora with Alberta Health says a combination of naloxone, enhanced mental health services and safe injection sites should help limit the opioid problem. (CBC)

Despite the high number of deaths last year, Dr. Sikora said he’s optimistic a team effort will lead to progress.

“I shudder to think what things would be like if we haven’t had a … naloxone program,” he said. “If we haven’t had the expanded mental health services, if we hadn’t had such dedicated effort in this area.”

Three safe injection sites are set to open in Edmonton this year.

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