Northern Ontario health unit raises alarm over surge in suspected overdoses

By Marissa Lentz-McGrath
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

A Northern Ontario health unit has issued an alert in response to a recent spike in suspected overdoses.

The Porcupine Health Unit (PHU) and community partners on the Opioid Emergency Response Task Force have mobilized a red alert due to “concerning” increases in suspected opioid-related overdoses in the health unit’s geographical area.

“In response to the opioid toxicity events across the PHU region, the Task Force is sharing a red alert,” said Dr. Lianne Catton, Medical Officer of Health for the PHU.

Catton said the heightened alert calls attention to the ongoing severity of the opioid crisis.

The PHU uses green, yellow and red for its suspected overdose alert system. While green doesn’t mean there aren’t overdoses occurring, yellow means a heightened number and red is when the issue needs immediate attention.

In March, the PHU issued a yellow alert similarly following an increase in suspected opioid poisonings.

At the time, Laurie Dagg-Labine, PHU’s manager of school programs, substance use and mental health, would not say how many suspected overdoses there had been to trigger the alert.

“We can’t really say it’s this many overdoses or this many deaths that really cause it, it’s something that is a little bit more grey than a finite number. We might just see things that are happening in the community that are definitely different or off trend,” she told TimminsToday in March.

The region, Dagg-Labine said, has been moving in and out of yellow alerts, with some red alerts in the last few years.

In the first three quarters of 2023, the Ontario coroner’s data shows Timmins had the fifth-highest mortality rate in the province with 16 opioid toxicity deaths, or 50.7 deaths per 100,000 people. This number is for Timmins specifically and not the entire Porcupine Health Unit area, which saw a total of 23 deaths during the first three quarters.

The provincial rate for that time period was 17.5 deaths per 100,000 population — or a total of 1,947 opioid toxicity deaths.

The current red alert follows the closure of Timmins’ supervised injection site on Monday (July 1).

Now that the Canadian Mental Health Association Cochrane-Timiskaming (CMHA C-T) has officially taken over the operation of Safe Health Site Timmins, the consumption treatment services will no longer be offered.

On-site counselling, referrals to health services, treatment, harm reduction, education and other supports will continue to be offered.

Safe Health Site Timmins (SHST) opened in July 2022 and was funded by the City of Timmins for its first 1.5 years. When that funding expired, Timmins and District Hospital stepped up to fund it.

The supervised injection site is a place for people to use previously obtained drugs in the presence of trained medical staff and connect to services.

Last year, SHST received approval for a permanent facility from Health Canada, which allowed it to apply to the province for funding.

Right after receiving the federal nod, Ontario paused all new funding applications for safe consumption sites to allow for a review of the facilities after a woman was hit by a stray bullet and killed outside of a Toronto site. That review has not been completed yet.

In 2020, a funding proposal for a comprehensive treatment centre — Timmins Wellness Centre — was submitted to Ontario Health. TADH says that proposal was resubmitted in December 2023.

The CMHA says that people using the SHST should use the National Overdose Response Service (NORS) Hotline at 1-888-688- 6677. They also advise people not to use alone and always carry Naloxone.

The PHU is also encouraging anyone using substances to carry Naloxone (narcan). The health unit says it’s easy to use and available at most pharmacies and all health unit offices across the region.

“This heightened alert calls attention to the ongoing severity of the opioid crisis. Opioid poisonings can occur anywhere, anytime, and to anyone, even if you don’t use opioids frequently,” said the PHU.