By Sue Tiffin
Preliminary data in the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge district reports 15 suspected overdose deaths from January to May of this year, compared to 20 opioid related overdose deaths in all of 2019, while in the province, an approximate 35 per cent increase in overdose deaths was reported from April to July this year, compared to the same period last year.
According to statistics released by the City of Kawartha Lakes Police Services in August 2020, an overall increase in overdose rates in 2020 might occur compared to last year. The Kawartha Lakes Police Services board reports 88 suspected overdose incidents and six deaths so far in 2020, compared to 93 suspected overdose incidents and nine deaths last year in total.
Anecdotal reports from other local police services, emergency medical services and other community partners also point toward an increase in the number of overdose events in recent months during the pandemic.
Dr. Lynn Noseworthy, medical officer of health for the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit, provided an update on the health unit’s harm reduction program enhancements at the board of health meeting held through a conference phone call on Sept. 17.
“In responding to COVID-19, access to supports and services for people who use drugs has been limited,” said Noseworthy. “Physical distancing and social isolation may be necessary to slow COVID-19, but using substances alone increases the risk of overdose. Rising anxiety and depression due to the pandemic, as well as an increase in toxic drug supply, have also fuelled the increase in overdoses.”
The health unit response to addressing the opioid crisis in the HKPR district throughout the COVID-19 pandemic included
– continuing operation of the Needle Exchange Program supply distribution at health unit office locations with additional safety measures in place, and continued distribution of naloxone kits to registered agencies
– regular consultation with other agencies, including PARN, Green Wood Coalition and FourCast, that have a more direct relationship with people who use substances, “adding perspective beyond the official stats, such as people experiencing overdoses not calling 911, the local presence of a new drug or a drug with increased potency, and barriers and challenges people face to access support services”
– working with two area shelters to ensure client access to harm reduction supplies, assisting with issues as they arose
– creating and distributing information resources to people who use substances on safer substance use and harm reduction during COVID-19, including to shelter clients
– sharing relevant overdose data and alerts with EMS, police and hospital partners, as well as member agencies of the Haliburton, Kawartha Lakes, Northumberland Drug Strategy, to provide for a coordinated response – so far in 2020, four surveillance reports, two drug alerts and five drug alerts from neighbouring health units have been shared.
Additionally, the health unit distributed more than 48,000 needles, with 31,000 needles returned (a 64 per cent rate of return) and made 452 contacts with 41 new contacts in the first quarter. In the second quarter, more than 36,500 needles were distributed with more than 17,000 needles returned (a 47 per cent rate of return) and 407 contacts were made, 30 of those being new. The health unit acknowledged “the second quarter numbers may be inaccurate due to the simultaneous occurrence of a new data inventory and reporting system and COVID-19.”
In the first half of the year, 354 naloxone kits were distributed to community agencies, compared to 329 kids during the same time period in 2019.
“During COVID-19, harm reduction efforts have continued to be a priority for the health unit and our community partners,” said Noseworthy. “The health unit continues to provide the needle exchange program and the naloxone program, as well as its opioid surveillance, early warning and local opioid response programs.”