This story has been updated since it was originally published.
Yesterday, I received the following message from someone who works in Alberta Health Services’ South Zone:
It seems as though Alberta Health Services held a town hall yesterday morning for employees in the South Zone. Over 400 attended. In that meeting, one of the things mentioned was that since Jason Luan, the associate minister of mental health and addictions, announced last week that the province was defunding the Lethbridge supervised consumption site, 13 Lethbridge residents have died of opioid addictions.
I reached out to ARCHES, and I was able to confirm that the supervised consumption site is still operating—at least temporarily—but that clients think it has already shut down.
In fact, when I went to the supervised consumption site last night as part of the Sage Clan Patrol, we encountered far fewer people there than we normally do.
If clients think that the supervised consumption site is already closed, then that means—as many people predicted—that those clients will be using elsewhere—even in public places. And with no health care staff on hand to reverse overdoses, the number of overdoses will increase.
For reference, there were 15 opioid-related (fentanyl and non-fentanyl) deaths in the entire South Zone during the first 3 months of 2020.
In Lethbridge itself, there were 6 opioid-related (fentanyl and non-fentanyl) deaths during the first 3 months of 2020. In fact, there were 20 in total for all of 2019.
This means that in less than a week, apparently more than twice as many people died in Lethbridge due to opioids than died during the first 3 months of 2020, and 65% of the entire total in 2019.
ARCHES claims on their website that health care staff there responded to over 3,500 medical emergencies, which include overdoses, between February 2018 and June 2020. Assuming those numbers are accurate, that means there are hundreds—perhaps even thousands—of overdoses that they prevented from becoming deaths.
And unless the province reverses their decision to defund the supervised consumption site—or finds a reasonable alternative designed to prevent deaths—those overdoses will become deaths instead of reversals.
UPDATE (25 July 2020): Shortly after this story was published, several AHS employees reached out to me to say that they received an email from the chief zone officer regarding what was said at the above meeting. Here is the text from that email.
Statement to meeting attendees:
We are writing to you to correct some inaccurate information that was provided at this week’s town hall meeting for staff in Lethbridge.
At the meeting, it was mentioned that there have been 13 opioid-related deaths in Lethbridge since the government announced it was defunding ARCHES.
That statement is categorically false. We apologize for any undue concern that that incorrect statement may have caused.
AHS, in partnership with Alberta Health, continues to provide the necessary services, support and treatment to people in Lethbridge, and across the province, who have an addiction to an opioid or other drug.
The Lethbridge Supervised Consumption Service remains open as we transition clients to a new, temporary Overdose Prevention Service in the city.
Dr. Katherine Chubbs
Chief Zone Officer – South Zone
Alberta Health Services
Does it seem odd to anyone else that AHS didn’t take this opportunity to indicate what the actual number, if any, of deaths had occurred in Lethbridge during this period?
All they said was that it wasn’t 13. Maybe it was 14, or 3, or 0. Too bad they hadn’t provided more details.