SASKATOON -- There have been over 3,000 overdoses in Saskatchewan so far this year — some deadly— and it’s an issue candidates in the upcoming provincial election say they plan on addressing.

According to the Ministry of Health, as of Oct. 4, there have been 3,495 EMS calls with an overdose assessment between January and August of this year.

In August alone, there were 438 overdoses reported, with overdoses ranging in the mid-to-high 500s in May, June and July. Meanwhile, for all of 2019, the Ministry of Health reported 4,163 overdoses. 

Some of those overdoses were fatal. The Saskatchewan Coroners Service is reporting 40 confirmed and 190 suspected overdose deaths in the province between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31 of this year, bringing the total to 230.

That’s a record number of overdose deaths compared to previous years. There were 158 overdose deaths in all of 2019 and 171 in all of 2018, according to coroners service data. 

At a campaign event earlier this week, Saskatchewan Party Leader Scott Moe said this is a challenge that is occurring across the country and is an issue his party is committed to continuing to devote funding to and manage. 

He said over the past year, his government has spent $435 million on addictions and mental health services, including $1.4 million for a new crystal methamphetamine treatment centre in Estevan, Sask. — something he said they will expand if it proves to be successful. 

He added that his government is also spending $30 million on urgent care centres in Saskatoon and Regina that will provide some mental health and addictions supports.

"Not only are they going to lower wait times in our emergency departments, but they are also going to increase the continuum of care for those that are having a mental health or addictions challenge and ensure that they are able to find the supports that are available here in the province and find them much quicker,” Moe said.

He added that there also needs to be discussions about how contaminated drugs are getting into the communities and ensuring appropriate laws are in place.

NDP Leader Ryan Meili said he doesn’t think that’s enough.

“If enough was being done, not so many people would be dying,” he said at a campaign event this week.

“We want people to get off drugs. We want people to not use anymore, but you can’t stop using if you’re dead. You can’t get the help you need if you’re dead.”

Meili said if elected, his party would bring in an opioid and crystal meth strategy and fund mental health and addictions services so that people can get support when they need it.

“One of the things we’re going to be introducing is dedicated mental health and addictions emergency rooms, along with more longer-term in-patient care so that people who are wanting to get off of drugs and alcohol, actually get the support they need to do so. And in the process, support the harm reduction on the front lines,” he said.

Meili added that having these things in place can ensure people aren’t dying of overdoses and complications of Hepatitis C and HIV from using drugs.

During a campaign event in Saskatoon on Thursday, Meili pledged $2 million towards helping those affected by opioid and crystal meth addiction if his party is elected.

Both Meili and Moe answered questions last week about whether they would commit to funding the province’s first safe consumption site, located at Prairie Harm Reduction in Saskatoon.

Jason Mercredi, executive director of Prairie Harm Reduction, said the site needs $1.3 million in provincial funding to operate the site around the clock, 365 days a year. He said almost all of the funding would go towards staffing.

Mercredi said the group was told it would not be getting that full amount from the province before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but would be getting some money for two case managers. At the time, the Sask. Party government cited its other commitments to mental health and addictions support such as the crystal meth beds in Estevan.

As a result, the safe consumption site is only open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the week. It officially opened on Oct. 1 and has already seen a number of repeat customers coming in to access its services, according to Mercredi.

“They’re better connected with us because now we have them in our database, and we can start connecting them with services around the city and within the province. But in order to do that, we have to be open a lot longer,” he told CTV News.

Meili said if his party is elected, he would commit to the $1.3 million in funding for the safe consumption site. Moe on the other hand said he would not commit to funding the site at this time, but said it could be a possibility in the future.

Mercredi said the level of response has not been adequate and that more focus needs to be put on harm reduction services.

“If we’re going to get people to the new treatment centres that the government keeps touting, we need to keep them alive,” he said.

Continuum of care needed: expert

Dr. Peter Butt, an associate professor in the College of Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan and an addictions consultant with the Saskatchewan Health Authority, said when it comes to deaths related to substance use, it is important to think about the continuum of care within the healthcare system and within other related systems like policing, corrections and social services.

In healthcare, the continuum of care refers to how healthcare providers support a patient from preventive care, through medical incidents, rehabilitation and maintenance.

“It’s a complex issue, and with any complex issue, you need a really strategic approach that’s comprehensive. There’s no magic bullet — this isn’t something that a simple fix will address. It requires a number of different approaches in order to address it,” Butt said.

“It’s about increasing capacity right across the continuum of care in a way that’s going to help people to move along.”

Butt said safe consumption sites are part of that continuum of care. He pointed out that consumption sites not only supervise drug consumption to prevent overdoses, but they also offer services that can link people to care and treatment.

Mercredi agreed, saying “The healthcare system, the way it’s set up right now with emergency responders going to respond to overdoses and then minimal follow up from the healthcare system, it’s not adequate. We need a better system in place and a consumption site is part of that.”

Butt said it’s also important to support people through their recovery process. He noted that for substance abuse, three months is considered early remission and 12 months is considered sustained remission. Butt said more needs to be done to support people so that they can reach that 12 month mark.

He said right now “it’s just enough to keep a lid on things, but not enough to really build a robust system of care. And I think that’s really where the political parties need to pivot towards if they really want to have an impact, otherwise this will just come back again and again and again.”

The provincial election is set for Oct. 26.