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Health unit dealing with “alarming” rise in opioid-related deaths

Between March 2020 and September 2021, the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit (SMDHU) notes there was a 70-percent rise in opioid-related deaths in its medical region.

Cathy Eisener, Public Health Nurse with the SMDHU’s Substance Use and Injury Prevention Program, says there were 245 opioid-related deaths in that time, up from 145 in the 19 months prior to the pandemic.

“It’s pretty alarming,” she says. 

The Muskoka Paramedic Services (MPS) logs data on how many opioid-related calls for service they attend. Brad Davies, Commander with MPS, says they saw a 52-percent increase in calls for service at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019 compared to 2018. In 2020, they saw a 65-percent increase when compared to the previous year.

“We’ve had a general trend upwards, year over year,” Davies says. “Not as dramatic of an increase as we see in 2019 and 2020, but it has been trending upward over the last decade.”

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Eisener believes there were a lot of things that factor into why the spike happened. She says the most obvious is the pandemic itself. According to Eisener, it caused an interruption in services and isolated people, some of whom were already struggling. “Folks felt very left alone with the disruption of services at the onset of the pandemic,” Eisener says. “If you think back to those first few months, we just didn’t know what was going on.”

Eisener says when support services started being moved to a virtual setting or outright cancelled, that caused a lot of stress for people which might have caused them to turn to certain drugs like opioids. She says the pandemic also kept them indoors and, most of the time, alone, which increases the risk of death from an overdose.

Eisener says they have been able to continue with their harm reduction services, despite a brief pause at the beginning of the pandemic.

“When we’re talking about substances and we’re talking about harm reduction, we’re really talking about making a connection with folks and giving them what they need at any given time,” she explains, adding compassion is key. 

Davies says naloxone will continue to be key in combating the sharp rise. The medication is used to reverse the effects of opioids and was introduced by MPS in 2018. “When we first started administering it to our patients, it was very rare to come across a patient who had received it prior to our arrival,” he says. “Now we’re seeing a very steady increase of bystander administration of naloxone prior to our arrival, which is a very nice trend to see.”

According to Eisener, another way to combat opioid overdoses is through supervised consumption sites. She says the Canadian Mental Health Association Simcoe County Branch has applied for a site in Barrie but has not received word from the province if they’re able to go forward. An application was submitted last October after getting approval from City of Barrie council. It’s one of seven applications that need to be reviewed by the province. However, the provincial government has set a cap of 21 sites. Eisner says that number is not enough and the province needs to do more. 

“It’s about the government taking leadership and setting up a task force to address what’s happening right now,” Eisener concludes.

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