‘That there is an opioid poisoning crisis in the north’

By Mia Jensen
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The Sudbury Star

A new report on opioid-related deaths in Ontario is just the latest alarm bell in Sudbury’s ongoing opioid and overdose crisis.

According to the report from Ontario’s Office of the Chief Coroner, Sudbury, like other cities across Northern Ontario, has seen a significant increase in the number of opioid-related deaths in the last few years.

In the first quarter of 2022, Sudbury saw a death rate of 57.9 deaths per 100,000 people, second in the province only to Thunder Bay, which recorded 82.1 per 100,000 people.

The numbers reflect a trend that local health care and harm reduction professionals have been struggling to address in recent years across the region.

“Unfortunately, I think that the numbers we saw in the report were not surprising,” said Sherry Price, mental health and substance use manager at Public Health Sudbury and District. “We know that there is an opioid poisoning crisis in the north. We know that the numbers are higher in Sudbury than in some other areas.”

She added, “So it didn’t take us by surprise. It still saddens us, though, because each one of those people were people with families and friends and co-workers, and they’re no longer with us.”

According to Price, there are a number of factors that make northern regions like Sudbury and Thunder Bay particularly susceptible to rising opioid use, and instances of overdose and death.

The limited number of services across vast geographic areas is one of them.

“There’s less availability in the north,” she said. “We know that many people have to travel for the services that are available. We know that there aren’t as many services to provide options for people who would like to get off of opioids.”

But that’s only one part of the equation. Price said that it’s also important to also acknowledge and address “upstream causes,” which include social and mental health factors, that can lead to substance use or misuse.

“We look at things like poverty,” she said. “We look at trauma and the intergenerational effects of trauma caused by colonialism. These are things that profoundly affect northern communities.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has also been a major contributor to the rising rates: “In the last couple of years with COVID and the lack of shelter services, the fact that people are alone … Social exclusion is really a driving force behind drug use. And it’s been a great challenge over the last couple of years for people using substances.”

Heidi Eisenhauer, executive director at Reseau ACCESS Network, was also not surprised to see the results of the Chief Coroner’s report for many of the same reasons.

“We’ve been seeing these numbers for the past few years,” she said. “With COVID, many of our social supports were closed, and services were unavailable to people. It certainly was a challenging time for everyone out there.”

Reseau is the agency responsible for administering the city’s supervised consumption site, which has been in the works since 2019.

The site is meant to provide a safe and clean environment where people can consume recreational drugs, with sterile supplies and a fully trained staff on hand, in case of medical emergencies. The hope is that having access to space like this will reduce the number of opioid-related deaths and overdoses, reduce the spread of infections like hepatitis C and HIV, and provide ready access to health care services, addiction treatment, and social services.

The organization cut the ribbon on its new facility on 24 Energy Court in July, and Eisenhauer said staff members hope to be operational sometime in September.

“We’re running scenarios and getting the last of the supplies,” she said. “Everyone is excited.”

But a supervised consumption site is only one part of the solution in Sudbury: education is also key.

“(We’re) educating health-care providers, educating community service organizations, looking at how to create safe spaces that are welcoming to people who use drugs,” she said. “Ultimately, this is a health issue. If we can bring people in and create a safe space for them, they can get the services they need and we will reduce the stigma.”

In the last few years, the organization has been focusing on doing on-the-ground outreach, including workshops on overdose emergency response and Naloxone training.

While the numbers remain dire, Eisenhauer said she’s encouraged by how community members, local organizations, and the city have rallied together to respond to the crisis.

“It takes an entire community to make something like the (supervised consumption site) happen,” she said. “We’re very fortunate in our community that we’ll be able to move forward with this. We’ll be open any day and hopefully we’ll be able to respond and see the numbers decrease. It’s always been our goal to ensure people’s safety.”