Public health unit takes steps against opioid crisis

By James Matthews, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge Public Health District is about in the middle of all other districts when it comes to the number of opioid overdose related hospital visits.

Dr. Natalie Bocking, the unit’s medical officer of health, said during the public health board’s Oct. 19 meeting that there were 13 opioid toxicity deaths from January to May in the HKPR district. In 2022, the total number of overdose deaths across the region was 35 for the entire year.

“We’re somewhat at the same level as what happened through the year (last year) from January to May,” Bocking said.

The drug poisoning trend that’s been seen in a number of jurisdictions had been increasing in 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic before slightly declining to the current plateau.

“And certainly not going back down to levels we saw prior to 2016,” Bocking said.

She said the HKPR public health unit has a mandate to respond to the ongoing drug poisoning crisis. It has protocols related to substance use prevention and harm reduction. Current primary activities are related to surveillance and data collection from paramedics and emergency rooms.

“We know that, if it reaches a certain point, we will issue alerts to the community that we’re seeing a higher number than what we have seen of presentations to the emergency departments or calls for overdoses,” Bocking said.

A new community response plan is being coordinated with partner organizations to enable a quick response to a high level of opioid overdoses.

The local drug strategy centres on a coalition of institutions and community organizations with the overlapping mandate to address the harmful use of substances in the community. Those groups include the health unit, paramedics, police, hospitals, and various Haliburton County services.

Community groups include the John Howard Society, Greenwood Coalition, and PARN.

“By coordinating our efforts we’re likely to make a larger difference than each working parallel,” Bocking said.

Respiratory illness season begins

Bocking said influenza season has started in the region with the confirmation of a pair of cases within the health unit’s territory. Based on reported symptoms, there’s a moderate increase in cases so far this year compared to last year.

But the increase is at levels that are somewhat expected, Bocking said.

“This doesn’t mean we won’t start to see a further increase,” she said. “I think we’re still only at the beginning.”

Respiratory illness season last year peaked earlier than pre-pandemic levels. That was at the end of November.

“So we’ll continue to see an increase going into November, but hopefully not at what we experienced last fall,” she said.

Bocking said it’s important for people to stay up-to-date on their vaccinations, which will entail jabs for influenza and COVID-19. For people older than 60 years old and living in a long-term care facility, there’s a new vaccine against respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

What used to be just the single flu shot in the fall of the year has become three needles, she said.

“We have seen an increase in COVID-19 activity, and this is primarily marked by an increase in the number of outbreaks that had been identified at long-term care homes and in hospital settings.”

Thankfully, she said, the increase hasn’t been overly dramatic like the activity in previous surges of the virus.

Currently, people of higher risk for severe illness are getting the latest COVID vaccine. The general public will be eligible at the end of October, she said.