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‘People are dropping dead on the streets,’ says Edmonton doctor as overdose responses spike

Emergency services in Edmonton are responding to drug poisonings in record high numbers. 

Ambulances responded to 753 overdose calls in the past month, compared to 306 responses during the same period last year, according to provincial statistics.

“I have never seen so many opiate overdoses and out-of-hospital cardiac arrests as a result of drug poisoning in my entire life, and that’s saying something for a doctor who has worked 20 years in an inner city hospital,” said Dr. Darren Markland, an Edmonton intensive care physician at the Royal Alexandra Hospital.

Markland said up to 30 per cent of the overdose patients in his unit are unidentified because they are just found unconscious or dead on streets, alleyways and river valley trails.

‘People are dropping dead on the streets,” he said.

Across the province, emergency workers have responded to 1,321 drug calls since June 26, meaning 57 per cent of those responses were in Edmonton.

Man with beard speaks to CBC News outside Churchill Square.
Marshall Dines says he’s resuscitated several drug users in Edmonton in the past week. (Sam Martin/CBC)

“I’ve seen at least nine or 10 overdoses in the last seven days,” Marshall Dines, who stays in shelters and carries a naloxone kit with him, told CBC News Wednesday.

“I’ve Narcanned four people this week and I’ve watched a couple pass away.”

The UCP government has faced significant criticism from front-line health and outreach workers for its increased focus on a recovery-oriented model as more and more harm reduction services are cut.

Alberta’s Health Minister Adriana LaGrange declined comment Wednesday, but the province has said it is building a system that uses harm reduction services where appropriate.

‘A disaster’

“This has felt very much like a disaster,” said Marliss Taylor, the director of health services for Boyle Street Community Services.

Taylor recalled being mortified in 2005, when four overdoses in one week was too much.

“We’ve had up to 18 in a day around the building recently,” Taylor said, adding that many of the overdoses are managed on site without calling 911.

Doctors and front-line workers say the crisis is rooted in a number of complex issues, including a rise in mental illness and encampment living, the amount and severity of the drugs now available, and a lack of access to safe inhalation sites and testing kits to make sure drugs aren’t laced.

CBC has asked Alberta Health Services for details about access to drug testing kits in the province.

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