Health board issues overdose alert for area

By James Matthews
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Public health officials say it’s time to revisit and resurrect a former drug strategy for the region.

To prove the importance of such a strategy, one needs to look no further than the recent opioid overdose alert issued by the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit.

The regional health authority issued on Nov. 29 an opioid overdose alert for Haliburton County. It also reached into the City of Kawartha Lakes and Northumberland County areas.

The alert was issued because of a spike in overdoses in October and November. Kate Hall, a health promoter with the district health unit, said there were three ODs during one weekend alone in that timeframe.

“Recent data is showing an increase in youth drug overdoses,” she said. “We want to remind parents and guardians of the importance of talking to their children about drugs.”

The HKPR District Health Unit’s opioid overdose alert automatically flags the problem for community partners and first responders, which triggers enhanced outreach efforts and distribution of naloxone kits.

Naloxone is an emergency medicine that temporarily reverses the effects of an opioid overdose until the victim can get to hospital for treatment. Naloxone is recommended to be used in all suspected drug overdoses, due to the possibility of opioid contamination or poisoning.

Opioid users are advised never to use drugs alone. A buddy system can ensure help is at hand in the event of an overdose. Users need to avoid mixing drugs and they should keep a naloxone kit on hand. You can get a naloxone kit at most pharmacies and needle exchange sites.

Naloxone kits are also available for people who use opioids, as well as their family and friends. These can be picked up at Health Unit offices, local pharmacies, and  other locations.  

“We don’t have any information about the substances related to the overdoses that are being reported,” Hall said.

While physicians and nursing staff at the hospital where the OD patient was treated may know what type of drug was prevalent in the individual that caused the crisis, the health authority isn’t privy to such information to ensure patient privacy.

“We don’t know what the outcomes of these emergency room visits are,” she said. “In the data, it’s reported as an overdose. It’s a person. It’s someone’s loved one. We don’t know what the outcome is.”

She said there’s new research that delves into the contributions of stimulants in opioid toxicity deaths across public health units in Ontario.

“There is evidence out there to show there are a number of factors that are coming in to play with toxicity and poisoning,” she said. “That is increasing and that’s a concern because things like naloxone may not work. It may not be effective if we’re getting stimulants mixed in.”

Hall said conversations have recently taken place toward resurrecting the Haliburton, Kawartha Lakes, Northumberland Drug Strategy. The strategy was developed years ago but has been in limbo because of the pandemic and a lack of resources to implement it, she said.

“We’re revisiting that,” she said about the drug strategy. “We’re having conversations with community partners and coming back around the table to make a plan about what can be done.”

There are about 35 community or regional drug strategies across the province. The goal of such plans is to respond to substance use-related harms and issues faced by community members, service providers, health care systems, and all levels of government.

The Ontario Trillium Foundation awarded the Haliburton, Kawartha Lakes, Northumberland Drug Strategy a grant for three years, which started in July 2016 and finished December 2019. Right before the social shutdown brought on by the global COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the website, the purpose of the Haliburton, Kawartha Lakes, Northumberland Drug Strategy (formerly known as the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge Drug Strategy) was to facilitate a collaborative, evidence-based approach to minimize the risks and harms associated with substance use in the region.

Having a local drug strategy will ensure coordination and consistency of efforts to address drug use. It will improve communication between multiple stakeholders over a wide geography, and enable the region to better respond to evolving substance use trends and harms as a community.

Hall said an opioid overdose alert indicates such a collaborative approach is required.

“With every alert, the immediacy of the issue comes back,” she said.