Kitchener-Waterloo

Opioid overdoses reach all time high as region waits for supervised consumption sites

It’s been almost two years since the Region of Waterloo began exploring supervised consumption sites to help address the opioid crisis, but it’s still unclear where or when those sites will ever open. Advocates and drug users say more people will die as the process drags on.

Waterloo regional police responded to 106 suspected overdoses in February 2019

An injection kit is shown at a supervised consumption site in Vancouver. Dr. Mark Lysyshyn, with Vancouver Coastal Health, says delays in establishing supervised consumption sites put drug users at risk. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

It's been almost two years since the Region of Waterloo began exploring supervised consumption sites to help address the opioid crisis, but it's still unclear where or when those sites will ever open.

The Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care has said it will only fund 21 sites across the province, under its Consumption and Treatment Services program.

The region has submitted a letter of intent to the province to open one or more sites, but according to Chair Karen Redman, there are already 21 sites operating in the province.

"There is a distance separation criterion which is new and would result in the closing or amalgamation of some of the existing sites in Toronto," Redman said in an email to CBC News.

"While the number of existing sites that would be impacted has not been published, this would allow for new sites to open and remain within the cap."

106 suspected overdoses in February

The region is now waiting to hear back from the province before it can move ahead, but advocates and drug users say more people will die as the process drags on.

Waterloo regional police have responded to an increasing number of overdoses and fatalities that are believed to be opioid related.

Officers responded to 435 suspected overdoses over the last six months for which data is available. Of those overdoses, 33 were fatal.

The highest number of overdoses in one month occurred in February 2019, with a total of 106.

January 2019 saw the highest number of fatalities, with 11 deaths that month.

In comparison, the highest number of suspected overdoses in one month during all of 2018 was in June with 65, while the highest number of fatalities in one month was seven in March of that year.

Waterloo Regional Police Overdose Statistics
Month Number of Overdoses Number of Deaths Totals
Sept. 2018 62 4 66
Oct. 2018 53 2 55
Nov. 2018 61 6 67
Dec. 2018 60 6 66
Jan. 2019 64 11 75
Feb. 2019 102 4 106

Consumption sites just one tool, Cambridge mayor says

Cambridge Mayor Kathryn McGarry says the statistics are concerning, but supervised consumption sites aren't the only solution.

Cambridge city council recently extended an interim bylaw preventing any site from being located downtown.

"Many of those who are suffering from a fatal overdose have been found in their homes and until very recently, the majority of deaths were occurring in private homes. So we also know that the consumption and treatment site, if it were to operate in the community, doesn't reach everybody," McGarry said in an interview with CBC News.

She describes the sites as "a tool for a slate of a number of different wrap-around services," including detox beds, mental health services, housing and other preventative measures.

'People will die'

But Dr. Mark Lysyshyn says delays in establishing supervised consumption sites put drug users at risk.

Lysyshyn is a medical health officer with Vancouver Coastal Health. The public health authority oversees supervised consumption and overdose prevention sites for the city, including Insite, the first supervised consumption site in North America.

When people don't have access to harm reduction services, he says they end up using drugs alone and behind closed doors.

"That's a very high risk situation and often in those situations people will die," Lysyshyn told CBC News.

Dr. Mark Lysyshyn is a medical officer of health with Vancouver Coastal Health, which oversees supervised consumption and overdose prevention sites including Insite, the first supervised consumption site in North America. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC)

Lysyshyn says British Columbia saw delays in implementing federally regulated supervised consumption sites in the past, prompting the province to issue an order allowing for "quicker, community-based" overdose prevention sites.

"As soon as we were able to create those sites, we opened five of them within 24 hours, because the need was so urgent," he explained.

Vancouver Coastal Health now operates six overdose prevention sites and Lysyshyn says they currently have more visits and reverse more overdoses than Insite does. There have also been no deaths at any of those sites.

Lysyshyn says although some people still believe drug users should "clean themselves up and become abstinent," consumption sites have an important role to play.

"The treatments that we have out there are not perfect and they are hard to take, and so because they're not perfect, we need to provide people with harm reduction services to keep them alive until such point as we can offer them more effective and more acceptable treatments," he said.

About the Author

Robin De Angelis is a multimedia journalist based in southwestern Ontario. She has previously worked as a reporter covering local news in Sudbury. Get in touch on Twitter @RobinElizabethD or by email robin.deangelis@cbc.ca

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