Kitchener-Waterloo

Overdose deaths rise in Guelph amid COVID-19 pandemic

More people have overdosed on drugs and died in Guelph and the surrounding counties in 2020 than they did in all of 2019.

Disruption of normal drug supply cited as risk factor

Health officials are reporting an increase in overdoses and overdose deaths tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Mark Lennihan/Associated Press)

More people have overdosed on drugs and died in Guelph and nearby areas in less than six months this year than they did in all of 2019.

There have been 12 overdose deaths in less than six months this year, which is up from seven deaths last year, according to numbers from Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health.

The numbers are sad but not surprising to Adrienne Crowder, drug strategy manager for the Wellington Guelph Drug Strategy.

"It speaks to our societal stigma around substances that we have not moved faster before now to address the poisoned drug supply," said Crowder.

Overdoses in general in Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph are on track to surpass last year's numbers. There have been 154 overdoses so far this year, compared to 241 in 2019.

Because most of those incidents were reported by local police, Crowder said there may still be more overdoses happening that are uncounted by public health.

Supply chain problems

A similar spike in overdoses has happened in Toronto since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to public health officials there.

Crowder believes isolation and boredom caused by the partial COVID-19 shutdown is leading to greater drug use. Meanwhile, as with many consumer products, advocates say the supply of illicit drugs has been disrupted by travel restrictions and isolation orders. 

Raechelle Devereaux, executive director of the Guelph Community Health Centre, says what's available in the community and across the country is high potency fentanyl.

"We believe that the supply chain disruption and the disruption in that illicit supply has really been a major contributing factor to the spikes in overdoses that we're seeing," Devereau said.

Concern about overdoses led health officials in the region to send out four alerts between March 2 and May 6. There have only ever been 14 of such alerts in total.   

The A.R. Kaufman YMCA in Kitchener was transformed into a temporary shelter that serves roughly 60 men in Waterloo region. Staff from the YWCA and the region run the 24/7 shelter seven days a week. (Rachel Walser)

Increased overdoses at Kitchener shelter

Staffers at the temporary emergency shelter inside Kitchener's AR Kaufman YMCA say they, too, are noting a spike in overdoses.

In a four-month span at a shelter set up at St. Mark's Lutheran Church, there were six overdoses, said Kaitlin Boyko, a worker with the YW and daytime coordinator with the YMCA. But since the temporary YMCA shelter was set up in April, there have been 15. So far, none have been fatal. 

Racheal Walser, afternoon coordinator at the YMCA shelter, said Waterloo region is also dealing with a disruption to the regular drug supply. She believes some groups may also be more vulnerable right now, such as those who were previously housed in jails and were released at the outset of the pandemic.

"Those people come back to the shelter and their experience using substances is just trying to find out what their tolerance is. For some of our guys, that resulted in a series of overdoses," said Walser.

Across the region there have been 546 calls to emergency services for overdoses this year, down slightly from 614 the year before.

There have been 38 deaths from overdoses in Waterloo region as of June 6 this year. Last year, there were 63 in total.

To keep things from getting worse, advocates are calling for a safe supply of drugs. It's something that Crowder has long been calling for, but she said the COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear the health system is able to move quickly when the will is there.

"When we see how quickly we can change policies to protect people's health and well-being from a virus, it has been very challenging to see how slowly we react to change policies and procedures that could protect people's lives from poisoned substances," she said. 

In Guelph, there is some change on the horizon. Devereaux said the Guelph Community Health Centre is working quickly to formalize its own safe drug supply program.

Right now, she is in the process of hiring a lead physician for the project.

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