COVID-19 and Opioid Overdose Deaths: Insights from Alberta’s Substance Use Surveillance Data
April 5, 2021

People who use drugs, particularly opioids, are a group that has been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Safe consumption sites and homeless shelters are supports often relied upon by people who use drugs. During the pandemic, these supports have been, in some cases, temporarily closed. When these facilities have remained open, use has declined, due to social distancing requirements and client concerns about the risk of contracting COVID-19.1 Coupled with a decrease in the availability of supports, travel and border restrictions may be impacting the drug supply, potentially leading to increasingly toxic drugs.1, 2 This combination of factors has resulted in an increase in overdoses and overdose-related deaths in Canada over the last year.3

Alberta’s Substance Use Surveillance Data is an interactive web portal that tracks and reports data from Alberta, Canada on overdose incidence, overdose deaths, emergency services use related to overdoses, and use of harm reduction services, such as naloxone and safe consumption sites.3 Within this database, data can be stratified by the drug type responsible for overdose, the jurisdiction in which overdoses occur, the month in which overdoses occur, and patient-level characteristics, such as the age and sex of people experiencing overdoses. The database is updated regularly, allowing for up-to-date analysis, generally having a three-month lag. Data is available as far back as 2016 for many of the variables the database captures.

The table below highlights key insights that can be gained from Alberta’s Substance Use Surveillance Data for the first 11 months of 2020, which represent the most recent data currently available. Over this period, there were 1,139 drug-related overdose deaths in Alberta. This represents an increase of 43% compared to all of 2019. Opioids accounted for 88% of all overdose deaths in the province. In line with findings in other jurisdictions, overdose deaths are not evenly distributed between men and women in Alberta. Based on Alberta’s Substance Use Surveillance Data, men accounted for approximately 77% of all overdose deaths. We can also use Alberta’s Substance Use Surveillance Data to identify the peak age of incidence for opioid-related deaths. Approximately 65% of overdose deaths in 2020 occurred in individuals between 25 and 50 years of age. If we expand the age range to individuals between 20 to 64 years of age to more resemble the working-age population, this range accounts for approximately 96% of all overdose deaths.

Deaths Due to Overdose in Alberta, Canada (Jan 2020 – Nov 2020)

RegionAny DrugOpioids
 Total Deaths% MaleTotal Deaths% Male
Calgary Zone428NA371NA
Edmonton Zone415NA372NA


Most overdose deaths occurred in Alberta’s two main urban centers, Calgary and Edmonton. These two health zones account for approximately 75% of overdose deaths. Many of the remaining overdose deaths occurred in Alberta’s smaller yet still urban centers, such as Red Deer, Lethbridge, Fort McMurray, Grand Prairie, and Medicine Hat. These smaller centers accounted for an additional 13% of overdose deaths in 2020.

Alberta’s Substance Use Surveillance Data suggest that overdose deaths disproportionately impact working-age males and frequently occur in urban settings. By impacting this demographic, overdose death could be leading to a substantial loss of life years and may be acutely affecting families.

The data presented within this analysis represent only a small portion of what is available through Alberta’s Substance Use Surveillance Data. If you would like further information on data available through this source, please contact Medlior 


  1. Jennifer Lee. Drop-off in use of drug consumption sites amid COVID-19 concerns advocates. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. (May 20, 2020)
  2. Ontario Drug Policy Research Network; Office of the Chief Coroner for Ontario/Ontario Forensic Pathology Service; Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion (Public Health Ontario); Centre on Drug Policy Evaluation. Preliminary Patterns in Circumstances Surrounding Opioid-Related Deaths in Ontario during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Toronto, ON: Ontario Drug Policy Research Network; 2020.
  3. Alberta Health. Substance Use Surveillance Data. (March 11, 2021)