Those who work on the front lines of the opioid drug crisis —  helping drug users stay safe and stay alive —  are seeing an immediate need for supervised drug injection sites in northern Ontario.

This past week Health Canada approved plans to create four new supervised drug injection sites in British Columbia and Quebec to help combat the ongoing overdose crisis gripping the country.

Supervised injection sites would keep users out of the back alleys, where there isn't anyone to respond to an overdose, says Brandi Cull, an outreach nurse at Sudbury's Réseau Access Network.

"[Users] go in, inject in front of a nurse, [who is] trained to respond to an overdose, teach them safer practices for injection, making sure everything's sterile," Cull said.

"Then observing after they've injected to make sure they are not overdosing before we send them on their way. "

In January, the Ontario government said they are committed to funding three supervised injection sites in Toronto at an estimated annual cost of $1.6 million.

The province has also announced the launch of the Opioid Tracker, a web based tool that shows the number of opioid -related emergency department visits, hospitalizations and deaths across the province.

There isn't a catch-all solution to the crisis, Dr. David Williams, Ontario's Chief Medical Officer, told CBC's Up North. The issue is "multi-faceted and complicated" and "needs to be addressed in different ways at different times."  

The data will at least allow communities to compare themselves —  and their opioid use rate —  to others in the province.

'What does the data tell us?'

According to the data, northern Ontario has some of the highest rates of opioid related deaths in the province.

The data prompts health care workers to consider how to best respond to the opioid crisis.

"What does the data tell us? How fast is it going?," Williams said. 

"Are we the same in Kenora as downtown Toronto? Are we the same in Sudbury as downtown Ottawa?"

Williams also recognizes the challenges the north faces in its remote communities.

"We have separate types of opioid addictions in First Nations, Indigenous population groups both on reserve, in remote communities, as well as urban," he said.

"Oxycodone was [a problem] in the past, it took almost six years of community detoxification," he continued. "It has been and continues to be a big challenge."

Dr. David Williams

Ontario Chief Medical Officer, Dr. David Williams, says there isn't one approach that will stop Canada's opioid overdose crisis. (www.sse.gov.on.ca)

But front line workers in northern Ontario, like Cull, are hoping the data gathered in the tracker compels the government to set up safe injection sites in northern Ontario. 

Fighting the stigma of drug use

Part of the challenge for users seeking help, or at least a measure of safety while injecting, is the stigma attached to drug use, Cull said.

"I've taken clients to emerge before and the treatment they received from doctors or nurses... they just look at them like they are less-than, undeserving of care because they use drugs. And that's heartbreaking to see."

Cull hopes that a deeper understanding of the roots causes of addiction will eventually help, too.

"We need more funding, more training," Cull said. 

"To really get people to think about why they're using, what trauma has led them to feel the need to use the drugs in the first place."  

Cull said that anyone with concerns about a friend or family member who may be using opioids shouldn't hesitate to contact Sudbury's Réseau Access Network.

"Come by see us," she said. if we can't help you we'll send you in the right direction."