Despite seeing the lowest number of monthly opioid-related deaths in March, overdose deaths are still trending at record-high levels in Alberta.

On Friday, the Alberta government reported that 120 people died from opioids fatalities in March, the lowest number of monthly deaths since April 2021. The province claims Alberta’s opioid-related fatality data is beginning to show a significant decrease coming out of the pandemic.

But data from Alberta’s substance use surveillance system shows opioid-related overdoses are still at record highs compared to pre-pandemic years.

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The province reported 159 deaths in January 2022, a 21.4 per cent increase from January 2021 and a 231 per cent increase from January 2020.

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Similarly, the Alberta government reported 165 deaths in February, a 54.2 per cent increase from February 2021 and a 292 per cent increase from February 2020.

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“While every loss of life is tragic, we are cautiously optimistic after seeing fatalities decrease in Alberta in March. We know that the COVID-19 pandemic and related restrictions caused addiction deaths to increase,” Mike Ellis, Alberta’s associate minister of mental health and addictions, said in a Friday morning press release.

“We hope to see the fatality rates continue to decline as we recover from the pandemic and continue to implement strategies to address the addiction crisis.”

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Rebecca Haines-Saah, an associate professor at the University of Calgary’s Department of Community Health Sciences, said it is too early to celebrate the decline in opioid-related deaths.

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“I think that it’s far too early to really celebrate. There’s a lot more I want to know about what (the province is) doing,” Haines-Saah said.

“I think it’s a little exaggerated when they are implying that this is the direct result of treatment interventions and attributing to previous higher rates.”

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Haines-Saah added that while it is difficult to pinpoint the reason behind the high numbers, the COVID-19 pandemic is a factor. It is important to invest in public health and overdose intervention programs, she said.

“The numbers were at an all-time high during the pandemic and it had a lot to do with how people experience isolation and marginalization,” Haines-Saah said.

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“Even though I study this issue, my heart sinks and my stomach turns because I’ve met so many families impacted by this. This doesn’t affect one person in Alberta, it impacts everyone.”

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Mental health and addictions critic Lori Sigurdson blasted the government’s response, criticizing the United Conservative Party’s celebratory tone in its Friday morning press release.

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“The UCP should not be celebrating today. Instead of ridiculing and shaming harm reduction experts and advocates, the UCP must start listening to and working with them to save lives,” Sigurdson said in a statement on Friday.

“The UCP has continually ignored scientific evidence of the life-saving impact of harm reduction measures and have made it harder for Albertans to accessing services.”

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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