An Edmonton harm reduction group is hoping to fill a service gap on city streets as ambulance crews respond to opioid-related calls in unparalleled numbers.
In recent months, emergency medical services in Edmonton have witnessed an unprecedented growth in opioid-related emergency calls. Specifically, between July 26 and Aug. 1, Edmonton EMS responded to 162 opioid-related calls, which represents the highest number of calls in a single week since reporting became available in 2018.
Since the beginning of June, EMS has been attending an average of 127 opioid-related events a week, according to substance use surveillance data published by the Government of Alberta. In contrast, over the entire month of May, there were 286 recorded opioid-related events.
According to Alyssa Miller, founder and executive director of Boots on Ground, a rapid, mobile outreach response to the opioid crisis, these numbers of opioid-related events reflect her observations. “There have been nights when we’ve gone out and we’re reversing overdoses and we’re calling 911 for medical support,” she said in her interview with the Edmonton Journal. “And we know that there were three other spots within three blocks of where we’re currently situated where they already have fire or ambulances attending.”
Members of Boots on Ground visit Edmonton’s Boyle McCauley and McDougall neighbourhoods each evening from 5-10 p.m., to check in with individuals and dispense naloxone kits, as well as sugary snacks and water.
“Our primary goal is to reduce the chance of an overdose or transmission of blood-borne illnesses and sexually transmitted infections,” Miller said. “So we hand out what are called safer-use supplies, which we get through Streetworks … and those supplies include glass pipes, needles, tourniquets, alcohol swabs, so basically anything you need to set up to use the substance, minus the substance itself.”
Miller added that she’s been in Edmonton for 20 years and the number of overdoses currently occurring is the worst she’s ever seen. “I know other people that I’ve spoken to that work in this field and related fields have said the same thing, that this is just absolutely the worst,” she said.
Recently, Alberta’s substance-use surveillance data was updated to include accidental drug poisoning statistics for the month of May. In May, 122 people died of drug poisoning in the province, and of those, 119 were from an opioid overdose. In Edmonton, 43 people died of drug poisoning in May, 41 of those from opioids. “Nobody can keep up with the demand,” Miller said.
“We have heard loud and clear from our business members they want to help. By giving business owners and their employees the tools to save lives, we are empowering and supporting one another. We’re all in this together.”
Currently, the Alberta Avenue Business Association (AABA) is partnering with a local pharmacy to provide free naloxone kits and training to businesses in the area. Accordingly, business owners and employees can learn how to use the kits and how to recognize the signs and symptoms of an overdose. “We are in crisis mode along Alberta Avenue,” AABA executive director Jay Ball said in a news release.