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Opioid overdose and fatality rates rising in OPP West Region


by Sylene Argent

Last Wednesday, a Huron-Perth Community Partner Open House was hosted virtually to focus on opioid use and addictions, rising rates of overdoses and fatalities, and to share information about help available.

  “This is an issue that impacts the people you love and the places you live,” Superintendent Frankie Campisi said during the virtual meeting that allowed individuals to listen to and interact virtually with professional policing and health professionals.

  The OPP, she said, has the role to investigate opioid-related incidents, with an acute focus on apprehension of those who produce, import, and traffic illegal drugs.

  Trafficking of opioids is a very serious offence. “Dealers are knowingly distributing products that cause harm and could kill,” Campisi said, adding officers are constantly deploying Naloxone, which counteracts the effects of opioid overdose.

  “The police can’t solve this problem alone. It’ll take the collective efforts of everyone in our communities to find a solution,” Campisi added.

  Detective Constable Chris Auger said opioids are prescription drugs, provided through a doctor, and include morphine, hydromorphone, oxycodone, fentanyl, methadone, and codeine.

  The drugs are prescribed to relieve pain, he noted. Because of their effect, opioids can be highly addictive, Auger said.

  Fentanyl is 50-100 times more powerful than morphine. When prescribed, it is found in a three-day patch. He said in Ontario, law enforcement pushed down hard on oxycodone. The next thing that popped out was fentanyl, so law enforcement pushed down hard on that drug with the patch-for-patch program. When fentanyl patches became less available, people started seeking out illicit fentanyl, which is in a powdered form.

  When we law enforcement first found the powdered fentanyl, it was being cut into cocaine, because of its anaesthetic-effect. Then, fentanyl was being cut into heroin, Auger said, adding this product was 20 times for powerful, and people would overdose.

  The white-powdered fentanyl is illegally produced. There is no quality control when they are made. So, the actual amount of fentanyl that makes its way into a pill changes from pill-to-pill, he said.

  Because of the pharmacological effects of opioids cause breathing difficulties, overdose indicators include slow and weak breathing and fingertips turning blue, Auger said.

  Since COVID, Auger said, cases of opioid overdoses have gone up in Ontario. Three-years ago, the OPP changed the way it investigates overdoses, with each investigation now having a member of the OPP Criminal Investigation Branch, which was responsible for investigating homicides, attempted murders, and other criminal-code investigations. It has an acute focus of charging those who import or traffic illegal drugs that result in death.

  In the West Region, there were 38 fatal overdoses in 2019 and 60 in 2020, Auger said. These causes of death were confirmed by the Coroners’ Office in Ontario. In addition, there were 236 overdoses in 2019 and 293 overdoses in 2020. Most of these were resolved because the individuals were sent off to get medical care, or naloxone was used.

  Naloxone was used 34 times in 2020 and already15 times in the West Region in 2021, Auger added.

   Auger wanted the take-away of the event to be for individuals to not to be afraid to call 911 when there is a need. He said the Good Samaritan Overdose Act will reduce the fear of those attending the scene. Part of policies and procedures allow protection against possession of drugs and court violations, he said. He also suggested those prescribed such drugs are properly stored, to follow instructions, to keep a small number of individuals involved with one’s medical information, and to not share with strangers.

  “To our youth, respect yourself, your parents, and teachers, and invite them to learn more about your world. This will help you be more approachable when you are running into difficult times and need to talk to someone,” Auger said.

  Opioids are not only a policing matter, but a health matter. Dr. Miriam Klassen, the Medical Officer of Health for Huron-Perth, and Public Health, Nurse Michelle Carter, also addressed the issue.    

  “We have all heard the phrase, ‘there is no health, without mental health,’” Klassen said. “And, I would add that mental and physical health are equally important, as well as interconnected.”

  COVID, she said, has effected many. Some individuals have or even passed. Some have suffered severe economic impacts, secondary to the public health restrictions, which have been put in place to prevent transmission, Klassen said.

  “All of us have lived with significant social restrictions, and with uncertainty. Most of us have probably experienced fear or anxiety, so it is not surprising that all of these factors have adversely impacted mental health. And, given that substance use is often a form of coping, related to life stresses, or trauma, or mental health, it should not come as a surprise to us to learn that the pandemic is also associated with an increase in substance use and substance-related harms that impact individuals, as well as often their families, their friends, and their workplace,” Klassen commented.

  In Ontario, preliminary patterns in circumstances surrounding opioid-related deaths, reported by the Ontario Drug Research Policy Network, noted in the first 15-weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic in this Province, 695 people died of a confirmed or suspected opioid-related death. This represented a 38.2 percent increase compared to the first 15-weeks immediately preceding the pandemic, Klassen relayed.

  Carter added that in Huron-Perth, a community approach is offered to provide services. The benefit of living in a small community includes the interconnectedness of families and personal and professional relationships. She believes this is a strength of rural Ontario.

  She said it is important to stay connected to friends and family members. “Just checking in could save someone’s life,” she Carter said.

“It is incredibly difficult for people, if we are saying ‘stay apart,’ and yet, there is a greater increased risk of death if they use alone,” Carter said. She did, however, encourage considering the COVID vaccine, once it is offered to one’s age group.

Choices for Change – a support organization providing counselling for alcohol, drug, and gambling addictions – offers a methadone and opioid support program spoke of treatment options.

  Robin Spence Haffner from the organization noted Choices for Change serves around 2200 people who are experiencing addiction and mental health issues each year. One of the programs offered is the withdrawal management program, staffed by nurses and counselors who can help people navigate the system through their treatment journey. The Huron Perth Clinic can also offer medications that can help ease the physical withdrawal symptoms, such as methadone or buprenorphine.

“The key to successful opioid addiction recovery is looking at both the physical and the psychological components of addiction,” she said.

She added addictions can begin from legal prescriptions, whether that be from youths experimenting with things they find in their parents’ medicine cabinet or people who have been prescribed pain managements and were not successful in finding other ways to manage their pain.

Jeff Steffler explained the Tanner Steffler Foundation was created in 2017, when their son, Tanner, passed away to an opioid overdose.

  One of the biggest issues found through his organization is stigma. He said his son came to him and his wife to ask for help, after becoming addicted to hydromorphone. He had a prior surgery. He was taken to the ER and was given a few business cards for agencies that could help and a referral to the family doctor.  

  “I’ll never forget the words we got, when Heather and I had Tanner at 17-years-old, 16-years-old, in the family doctor’s office was, when we were leaving, the words around were, ‘if you don’t stop doing these drugs, you’ll find yourself death under a bridge in Vancouver like the rest of them’” Steffler said.

Addiction can be anybody. It can be frontline workers, he said. “Homelessness is not worthlessness,” Steffler added. He said the vision on the matter has to change, if there is to be change. “The brain is part of the body. Addiction, mental health is nothing more, nothing less than a brain disease.”

  In Windsor-Essex, those needing help can log onto www.wechu.org/chronic-disease/get-help-drug-alcohol-and-other-addictions for more information.