Nineteen suspected drug poisonings over 10 days in Brant prompts alert from health unit

The Brant County Health Unit (BCHU) is sounding the alarm after 19 suspected opioid-related drug poisonings — including two deaths — took place in Brantford-Brant between June 1 and 10.

The health unit takes data from the last three years to set a monthly threshold for opioid-related incidents.

By June 10, it was already at 48 per cent, prompting an alert warning the public, Jessica Lang, manager of population health assessment for BCHU, told The Spectator in an email.

November 2023 was the last time BCHU issued a community drug alert, which saw 29 suspected opioid-related drug poisonings — including six deaths — that month.

The numbers point in the direction of the biggest spike of opioid-related emergency visits the area has had in the past seven years, which saw an average of 12 hospital visits for every 10 days in July in 2023.

What the data can’t show? The cause.

The unpredictability of the unregulated drug supply — particularly when it comes to opioids — is often responsible for spikes in overdoses in Ontario, Alyssa Stryker, drugs strategy co-ordinator for BCHU, told The Spectator in an email.

She said it’s “likely” that “unpredictable potency and/or composition” is causing this spike, but the health unit hasn’t been able to identify the responsible substance.

“If you are new to drug use, you are particularly at risk should you use drugs that may have unpredictable potency or contain unexpected and dangerous contaminants,” the alert on the BCHU website cautioned.

It also reminded locals not to use alone, to carry naloxone and to go slow — especially if using substances purchased from a new supplier.

When someone does overdose in the community, their emergency care typically involves Narcan (brand name of naloxone) to reverse an opioid overdose and monitoring vitals, the emergency department leadership team at the Brantford General Hospital told The Spectator in an email.

If someone discloses substance use — and the hospital said many patients do inform the care team of substances taken, once capable — the hospital’s rapid addiction support team (RAST) will check in at an appropriate time.

RAST is made up of a nurse practitioner and case manager, who can provide education, referrals and harm reduction strategies, like fentanyl test strips, the email said.

The patient is kept in emergency until they are awake, alert and can leave independently.

The community’s rate of opioid-related emergency visits is consistently higher than the rest of Ontario, something the Brantford-Brant Drugs Strategy Co-ordinating Committee — which includes the health unit and Brant Community Healthcare System — is working to address.

A key initiative is working to identify an appropriate safe consumption and treatment services (CTS) site in Brantford “where the greatest need has been identified,” said the emergency department leadership team.

The health unit is also currently piloting a program that allows people who use illicit drugs to test for xylazine, a powerful tranquillizer that has made its way into the illegal drug supply and can increase the risk of overdose when combined with other substances.

Test strips are available at SOAR Community Services’ locations (133 Elgin St. and 1-225 Fairview Dr.), the AIDS Network Van, and the Grand River Community Health Centre.

For more information about harm reduction or local opioid statistics, visit bchu.org.

Celeste Percy-Beauregard’s reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. The funding allows her to report on stories about Brant County. Reach her at cpercybeauregard@torstar.ca.

Celeste Percy-Beauregard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator