Manitoba keeps overdose stats secret, so advocates release them
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The Stefanson government refused to share data on how many Manitobans died of drug overdoses in 2022, one day after it released its budget plan to tackle drug addiction.
The province said it doesn’t rely on preliminary OD numbers and the only firm numbers are from 14 months ago.
One advocate whose son died of a drug overdose called the practice “shameful” while experts on access to information said it suggests political interference.
The Free Press requested the 2022 drug death data from the province Wednesday after the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner directed a request to the province.
An unnamed spokesperson for the province responded by saying the most up-to-date data can be found online at a government website. The site includes death data up to the end of 2021, with an update expected in April. When asked why 2022 data was unavailable, the spokesperson said the province “does not provide or report on preliminary or incomplete information as a part of this reporting.”
Pressed on the matter, the spokesperson said: “The province has appropriate checks and balances in place to ensure any discussion on this very important issue is done with accurate, verified data so that reporting — both online and in media coverage — is correct. Preliminary data may change, which could lead to different data being shared or create more confusion over what the stats actually are.”
Meanwhile, until at least a few months ago, the chief medical examiner’s office was releasing 2022 data to media. Last month, when the Free Press requested updated numbers, the office said it submits data monthly to the mental health and community wellness department and that “going forward, this will be the primary data resource.”
It’s unclear what prompted the change.
Asked if the province had directed the medical examiner’s office to stop sharing data with media, the provincial spokesperson said: “It is at the (medical examiner’s) discretion as to what information it chooses to release, including any preliminary data,” and that the government is not responsible for those media inquiries.
The medical examiner’s office did not respond to follow-up questions Wednesday.
“This is clearly a political decision,” said Neil McArthur, director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba. Regardless of what is going on behind the scenes, the province has the data and could release it itself, rather than point its finger back at the medical examiner’s office, McArthur said.
“I think it’s quite appalling actually that the government won’t release this data,” he said. “They’re really shooting themselves in the foot here.”
“I think it’s quite appalling actually that the government won’t release this data… They’re really shooting themselves in the foot here.”–Neil McArthur
McArthur notes it’s best practice — and normal — for governments to release as much information as possible about matters as urgent as a toxic drug crisis, and update it as new information comes in.
He argues releasing the drug death data could have bolstered the province’s budget announcement — $9.4 million for 1,000 new addictions treatment spaces and services — by showing the extent of the crisis and the urgent need to respond to it.
Moms’ group releases figures
Drug policy has increasingly become a hot-button issue in Manitoba as the Tory government faces intense scrutiny for refusing to support or fund supervised drug consumption sites.
This isn’t the first time the province has faced backlash for withholding drug data. A Public Health Agency of Canada report released in December showed Manitoba was the only province that failed to provide 2022 data. At the time, the province said it “chooses” not to submit preliminary data.
Meanwhile, the Free Press was able to obtain 2022 data from a group of mothers whose children have died from drug overdoses.
Data provided to Moms Stop the Harm by the chief medical examiner’s office show there were at least 377 deaths in the first 11 months of 2022. Data for December is not yet available.
“People have to know this information and if our government is going to hide it, and they’re just going to continue to let mothers do the work that they should be doing, they should be ashamed,” said Arlene Last-Kolb, Manitoba director of Moms Stop the Harm. Her 24-year-old son, Jessie, died of a fentanyl overdose in 2014.
In addition to monthly death data, the medical examiner’s office provides Last-Kolb with information about drugs in the systems of those who died — listing things like xylazine, a horse tranquilizer commonly known as “tranq” when mixed with fentanyl, which has been linked to rotting skin, severe wounds and amputations in the United States.
People need to know what’s in the toxic supply to keep themselves safe, Last-Kolb said.
She worries her group might soon see their access to data cut off and be forced to revert to filing freedom of information requests.
“We shouldn’t have to rely on FIPPA. There should be open government data on this and it should be up-to-the-minute because it’s in everyone’s interest to know if some drugs are not safe,” said Kevin Walby, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg and director of the Centre for Access to Information and Justice. “But instead, (government officials) cover their eyes and put blinders on.”
Walby said the toxic drug crisis should be treated like a tainted-water crisis and the province should share information immediately.
“Access to this information is a life-and-death matter,” he said. “Maybe (the government) is thinking it’s not going to affect their base, but a lot of people have friends who die and it’s because they don’t have access to data and good drug policy.”
“Maybe (the government) is thinking it’s not going to affect their base, but a lot of people have friends who die and it’s because they don’t have access to data and good drug policy.”–Kevin Walby
Walby noted the province’s own 2021 data is a “severe under-count.” The government website shows there were 399 overdose deaths in 2021, when in fact there were are least 424, according to the chief medical examiner’s office.
Furthermore, the office says 424 is a preliminary number, which suggests the province’s 2021 data is both out of date and still unofficial.
The website, last updated in January, states: “Fatality data is subject to change as more toxicology reports become available. This may mean that the most recent data may be underrepresented.”
Katrina Clarke is an investigative reporter with the Winnipeg Free Press.