'It's right across the board': Sask. reports record number of overdose deaths in 2021
Marie Agioritis lost her 19-year-old son Kelly to an overdose in January 2015.
She said she received a phone call early in the morning on Jan. 3 that her son had overdosed and died on their living room sofa after taking half a pill with a predominant amount of fentanyl.
“Good kid, lots of fun, wonderful boy,” said Agioritis, who is the Saskatchewan lead for Moms Stop the Harm.
Kelly is one of the nearly 1,500 people believed to have died of an overdose in Saskatchewan in the last six years, including a record number of deaths last year.
“I can’t say it’s a shock. It’s upsetting,” Agioritis said.
“It’s frustrating and we know the reasons why it’s continuing to go up … What we need is a willingness on the part of government to actually adopt evidence-based strategies that will help to curb the number of deaths.”
According to the Saskatchewan Coroner’s Service, there were 225 confirmed overdose deaths in 2021 and 239 suspected, for a total of 464.
That’s more than the 327 confirmed and suspected overdose deaths in 2020 and the 179 reported in 2019, and nearly four times the amount reported in 2017.
Most of the confirmed overdose deaths in 2021 were accidental with a portion by suicide and some still undetermined. Most were linked to fentanyl.
“We can’t disassociate ourselves from the problem because you think it’s not going to happen to you. It is happening to you and our kids and the cost is overwhelming,” Agioritis said.
“It costs not just the emotional mental health cost to all the families that are involved in the person who’s suffering. The cost to criminal justice and health care is huge.”
Prairie Harm Reduction, the only safe consumption site in Saskatoon, expects the overdose numbers will only get worse in 2022.
Executive director Jason Mercredi is calling on the province to provide $1.3 million in funding so the site can operate 24/7 year-round and hire relief staff.
“The need for this service keeps growing and yet we’re operating on a shoestring budget,” he said.
“We’ve had a number of our people that we’ve been working with for years pass away from overdose after we’ve closed in the evenings or on weekends and it’s incredibly frustrating when you feel like you’re doing as much as you can but it’s still not enough.”
Medavie Health Services West is also feeling the pressure, with paramedics responding to more overdose calls.
Troy Davies, director of public affairs, said Medavie administered record amounts of Narcan last year with 604 doses compared to 460 in 2020.
“When you lose a patient or a patient dies in front of you, you don’t just leave that at work and go home, you usually take that home with you,” Davies said.
“What’s frustrating for us is that there’s no trend, there’s no identifiable object saying okay, all overdoses are happening here and it’s between the ages of 16 and 20. That’s not the case. From the numbers we’ve run, it’s right across the board.”
Meanwhile, the Saskatoon Fire Department has seen almost a 300 per cent increase in overdose calls from 2019 to 2021.
“In 2021, our firefighter paramedics responded to 818 calls for overdose. With that, we used Narcan 109 times. In relation to 2019, we only used Narcan 30 times so, astounding in terms of what we’re seeing around addictions and mental health,” Fire Chief Morgan Hackl said.
Needle pick ups by the fire department also increased by 30 per cent last year, according to Hackl.
However, Hackl is hopeful things can change for the better in 2022. He said initiatives such as the emergency wellness centre opened by the Saskatoon Tribal Council last month has already made a difference.
“I think if we stay focused on those things, and coordinate more with our partners within the community and collaborate, I think 2022, we can see a direction trending with further positive outcomes,” he said.
Everett Hindley, Saskatchewan’s minister of mental health and additions, calls the number of overdose deaths in 2021 concerning and extended his condolences to the families and loved ones affected.
He added that the government has taken steps to address the overdose crisis including spending $458 million on mental health and addictions in its current budget and $2.6 million towards harm reduction.
“We’re expanding the take-home naloxone program, making it available in more communities across this province. For the first time ever, we’ve invested in drug checking strips in Saskatchewan and have now, after a pilot project in the summer, have now expanded that program into 30 locations throughout Saskatchewan,” Hindley said.
For Agioritis, she would like to see more be done and for people with lived experience to be consulted.
“It’s about public safety and it’s about the families of this province. One person with an addiction dies, hundreds suffer.”