Jessica Holtsbaum’s world was turned upside down Feb. 17, 2016 when she discovered her brother Nathan had died from a fentanyl overdose.

Holtsbaum couldn’t understand how her brother, whom she says spent his spare time fixing up his car, collecting coins and keeping tabs on the stock market, had become caught up in Alberta’s deadly struggle with fentanyl.

“Fentanyl has impacted us quite a bit. It has completely changed our world as we know it,” Holtsbaum says.

Alberta Liberal leader David Swann and other critics are pushing for the province to declare a state of public health emergency because it would give better access to monthly data such as age, ethnicity and location of overdose victims.

In an effort to combat the crisis, the NDP government has created a committee to review mental health care in the province and has been providing naloxone kits to first responders. But opposition leaders say that’s not enough.

In 2016, 343 individuals died from fentanyl drug overdose in Alberta — a 33 per cent increase from 2015. As that number is expected to rise in 2017, Holtsbaum feels declaring a public health emergency would have provided her family with the support they needed to help her brother by allowing them access to information on similar overdoses.

Holtsbaum’s brother, Nathan Huggins-Rosenthal, had been renovating his new house when he hurt his back. His doctor prescribed OxyContin, a powerful opioid painkiller to help manage his pain. Eighteen months later, he was dead.

Huggins-Rosenthal is part of the 23 per cent of Albertans who were prescribed OxyContin a year before they had a fatal reaction with fentanyl in 2016.

Fentanyl BodyJessica Holtsbaum and her brother Nathan Huggins-Rosenthal remained close to each other despite being from a large family of eight children. Photo courtesy of Jessica Holtsbaum

B.C. was the first province to deal with the rising fatalities due to opioids by declaring it a public health emergency. 

If Alberta followed in B.C.’s footsteps and declared an emergency, it would allow the government’s different departments such as health, human services and police services to work together instead of combatting the problem separately, according to Swann.

“The idea of a public health emergency is that the provincial health officer can require various groups to put more resources and focus on this issue which is saying to this province that everyone needs to step up their game,” Swann says.

But Alberta Health says they already have exceptional data collection compared to B.C. due to different legislation between the provinces.

The NDP government has instead announced they plan to make an investment for new opioid dependency treatment spaces, more addiction treatment beds, greater grant funding to establish supervised consumption services and distribute naloxone kits.

The Calgary Police Service is on board with the idea of working together in declaring a public health emergency. As Staff Sgt. Martin Schiavetta explains, “It takes far more than the police to get a handle on this crisis and we all need to work together to find a solution.”

Ultimately, Swann and Holtsbaum believe Alberta needs a recovery program that addicts can get into within a few days of applying.

Huggins-Rosenthal waited four months to get into an outpatient program at the Foothills Hospital but by that time his addiction had worsened. Fortunately, he was able to stay two days at a detox bed in Renfrew before he was admitted to the Claresholm Centre for Mental Health & Addictions where he stayed for six weeks.

“Claresholm will not take you unless you have detoxed and from many people’s experience, it is extremely difficult to get into Renfrew. You have to fit a certain profile, and in a way, Nathan was lucky because he was not what you would think of as a typical addict,” Holtsbaum says.

“Unfortunately, I think [the fentanyl crisis] will be as bad by this time next year because of how much demand there is in the province for opioids,” Schiavetta says adding more help from the government is necessary.

The editor for this story is Brandon Tucker |

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