Grande Prairie had the highest rate of fatal opioid overdoses in Alberta in 2017. There were 26 apparent accidental deaths related to fentanyl in the city last year, giving it a rate of 33.8 per 100,000 residents. There were also five deaths related to an opioid other than fentanyl, for a rate of 8.7.
“We definitely aren’t surprised, unfortunately,” says executive director for HIV North Melissa Byers.
Those numbers have spiked since 2016, when the fatal fentanyl overdose rate was 13.4. That was the second highest in the province, and Byers says Grande Prairie is the only city that’s seeing such a rise.
“We don’t know if it’s people coming to town; we don’t know if more people are using drugs. We don’t really understand the stats at this point… so I think this is something that we’re going to have to investigate to try to get a handle on and try to understand.”
Byers says training on naloxone, which reverses the effects of a opioid overdose, and education programs for residents and businesses are part of how they are trying to tackle the problem. Efforts are also being made to break the stigma around people who use drugs.
“About 75 per cent of individuals are dying behind closed doors,” explains Byers, “so we really want to be able to figure out how we can reach that 75 per cent of people, and destigmatization seems like the biggest, most easiest push at this point.”
The other 25 per cent have no fixed address, based on statistics out of Edmonton and Calgary. Byers says it’s crucial that the public understands opioid use isn’t limited to just certain parts of society.
“It is everywhere. It’s hard to find somebody who hasn’t met somebody who’s been affected by the opioid crisis; this is happening in all neighbourhoods.”
One tool HIV North hopes will help reduce the fatality rate is a supervised consumption site. Plans have been in the works for some time, but since they moved from a fixed location to a mobile unit, Byers says things have moved quickly.
“We are planning community consultations to talk about locations and hear the community’s concerns in bringing supervised consumption services to Grande Prairie. We’re looking at a mobile unit which will go between a couple different locations, which we are determining at this point.”
Those consultation sessions are slated for early April, and then a federal exemption will be needed to make it legal for people to use drugs in the vicinity. Funding from Alberta Health Services should follow, so Byers says delivery of the unit is likely six to eight months away.