Health experts offer advice on another health crisis: opioid use

·4 min read

With the rate of opioid poisoning deaths remaining at an alarming level, the current COVID-19 pandemic and the stay-at-home measures have made the situation even more concerning.

The rate of opioid deaths in Simcoe Muskoka has been significantly higher than that the average provincial rate over the past several years.

Data shows probable opioid-related deaths were 51 per cent higher in Simcoe Muskoka in the first eight months of 2020 compared to the same period over the past three years.

Community leaders are finding new ways to offer support to those affected by the crisis in this region.

From community outreach programs to naloxone training sessions, they are doing what they can to educate people. This includes dispensing naloxone kits with opioid prescriptions.

Naloxone can reverse the effects of opioid poisoning until a person can receive proper treatment.

While the majority of overdoses and deaths have occurred among people using recreational drugs, including those that contain fentanyl, others who receive opioids by prescription are also at risk.

Pharmacist, Santhosh Sekharan, owner of Little Avenue Pharmacy and NewLife Family Pharmacy in Barrie, has a developed a training program for people who may have the need to use naloxone. The training is done both at the pharmacy as well as other places in the region.

“Fentanyl is a type of opioid,” Mr. Sekharan explained. “Opioids are a family of typically pain killers. That includes morphine and oxycodone - these are prescription opioids. Then there's the non-prescription drugs like heroin – the ones you find on the street that are typically used recreationally. One of my pharmacies has an addiction medicine clinic. We do dispense opiates and work with doctors who prescribe substances like methadone, and that's to help them come off the opiates they use recreationally.”

Mr. Sekharan saw a need to show people how to use naloxone if a person overdoses on an opioid.

“It started with our pharmacy targeting our own patients,” he explained. “We branched out into outreach, to churches, youth groups, the Barrie Native Friendship Centre, and businesses. It does not affect only one demographic or age, or just people on the street. It's affecting our society, and there is an upward trend. We're seeing a 50 per cent in 2020 over the previous year.”

Mr. Sekharan said that while most overdoses and deaths occur from illicit use, and often fentanyl, other people can overdose from prescribed drugs as well.

He suggests that if a person does get a prescription for an opioid, it is wise to also get a naloxone kit in case of an accidental overdose.

Educating the public on opioid abuse and how to prevent it is a major concern and there are steps being taken to not only keep people informed but supply information and naloxone kits on a front-line basis.

France Young, Outreach Councilor and Case Manager with Youth Haven in Barrie, sees first hand how physical, emotional, and mental pain can cause some people to turn to drugs for an escape.

“This initiative I'm involved with covers all of Simcoe County,” Ms. Young said of the shelter's Community Connection initiative. “We work with youth from 14 years old up to young adults age 25. They can come to us for anything – mental health services, addiction support, education support, employment and court support. We deal with anything that can help them move forward in life.”

The initiative supplies kits to front-line workers including police and mental health workers who will deal directly with people in need – especially in situations regarding a drug overdose.

“The situation is really escalating,” Ms. Young explained. “We're hearing from our front line responders, and for us that's the Nottawasaga OPP and South Simcoe Police, that there is an increase in calls. It's rare for a hospital, especially in the Barrie area, where they go through a shift were they don't see an overdose. It's not just people using 'illegal' drugs, it's other people using opioids as a method of pain reduction and over extending the use of it.”

One of the problems is that drugs purchased on the street are tainted with substances like fentanyl – which can be deadly – and users have no idea they are taking it.

Youth Haven is supplying kits that can be distributed through front line workers to vulnerable people who may need some help.

“We want to save lives, primarily,” Ms. Young explained. “And we want to reduce the stigma around overdoses and increase education. You may be the one to save a life - you may be the one to save a life in your own house, or that of a neighbour. We want to get more naloxone kits into people's hands. What first responders can do is leave behind these Community Care Connection packages.”

The kits contain personal items as well as information on where to reach out for mental health or addiction help, as well as a naloxone kit.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has been at the forefront of media attention over the past year, the opioid crisis is an ongoing concern that continues to plague Simcoe County.

Brian Lockhart, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, New Tecumseth Times