Bid for 2nd safe consumption site has support, but expert says Hamilton needs opioid strategy

Hamilton’s board of health voiced support for a bid by The AIDS Network to get a second safe consumption site, but one local hospital official says the city needs to establish a strategy specific to the opioid crisis.

Ambulances were called 109 times in August to respond to suspected overdoses, 3 to 4 overdoses a day

Hamilton's opioid crisis has worsened during the pandemic, with August seeing more paramedic calls for apparent opioid overdoses than any other month since 2017, according to new public health data. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Hamilton's board of health voiced support for a bid by The AIDS Network to get a second safe consumption, but one local expert says the city needs a strategy specific to the opioid crisis.

Tim McClemont, the AIDS Network's executive director, said during the Monday meeting that the organization is applying to the province for a site in Ward 3, which saw one in four paramedic calls for suspected opioid overdoses in 2020.

Ward 3 (Hamilton Centre) Coun. Nrinder Nann said it was "totally disheartening and completely unacceptable" to see how the city wasn't able to establish a second site when public health was leading the charge.

"For me, it is an example of the unwillingness of the private sector to work as a partner," she said.

Hamilton established its first safe consumption site in June 2018 at the Hamilton Urban Core Community Centre on Rebecca Street.

1 opioid overdose every 6 hours in August

The bid for a second site comes amid new public health data indicating the opioid crisis is getting worse.

"This could be one of those unintentional consequences of COVID," said Michelle Baird, Hamilton's director of epidemiology, wellness and communicable disease.

The report says paramedics rushed to Hamiltonians believed to be overdosing from opioids more times in August than any other month in the past four years.

The 109 ambulatory calls from suspected overdoses work out to an average of between three to four overdoses a day. 

That's an average of one overdose almost every six hours.

From January to August this year, 594 locals called 911 for suspected opioid overdoses, which is roughly 17 per week, or two per day, says the report. That's up from 10 per week or one per day for the same period in 2020.

As well, 155 out of 161 confirmed local opioid-related deaths from January 2020 to March 2021 were accidental and primarily among people 25 to 44 years old, according to the data. About 79 per cent accidental overdoses were caused by street drugs and fentanyl was the most common opioid that led to accidental overdoses.

A person holding drugs.
The AIDS Network is pushing for a second safe consumption and treatment site in Hamilton. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

"The burden of opioid use continues to be higher in Hamilton than in many other parts of the province," reads the report.

"In 2020, Hamilton's opioid-related death rate was 29 per cent higher than the provincial rate (21 compared to 16 per 100,000). In addition, Hamilton had one of the highest opioid-related death rates in southern Ontario."

Nann called the statistics "staggering."

"It's not even shocking at this point," she said. 

"It's just such an indicator of the lack of wellness in some stretches of our community and it continues to post such a serious challenge for so many families."

No new funding for help program

The city has tried some things to stop the crisis, including creating the Hamilton Drug Strategy, but the report states it was frozen because of the pandemic.

"I do want to reiterate though a lot of the work of the agencies that have been involved … the work still continues, it's just the drug strategy overall hasn't been meeting as a group, and so not necessarily co-ordinating the work that has been happening," Baird said.

Dr. Robin Lennox says the city needs a strategy specifically for the opioid crisis. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

But the city's budget for the Alcohol, Drug and Gambling Services and Community Mental Health Promotion Program also won't grow this year.

Ward 1 (Chedoke-Cootes) Coun. Maureen Wilson said it's "perplexing" there isn't any extra funding despite the dire data.

Baird said the lack of a budget increase isn't unique to this year and said the city is trying to maintain the services it has now even without more money.

City needs strategy specifically for opioids

The report's next steps include working with academics to understand barriers at-risk communities face, enhancing overdose prevention in community settings — especially shelters and social housing spaces — and regrouping with the Hamilton Drug Strategy team to fine tune the goals moving forward.

Robin Lennox, co-head of service for the Inpatient Addiction Medicine Service at Hamilton Health Sciences and St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton, told CBC Hamilton she supports the bid for another safe consumption site, but said there needs to be a co-ordinated approach.

She added there should be a strategy specific to the opioid crisis, led by people who use drugs and those who represent them.

Lennox said some things she'd like to see in the city includes funding wraparound supports with safe consumption sites, opioid agonist therapy and integrating harm reduction into places people are more likely to overdose.

"In terms of the thing we're hearing from the community of people who use drugs that would really make a difference, we still have a long way to go," she said.