Sudbury's 2020 opioid death stats 'startling' but not surprising to consumption site advocate

The number of opiod overdoses in Sudbury, Ont., almost doubled last year compared to 2019, according to new statistics, something that angers Karla Gharty, a nurse and founding member of the advocacy group STOPS.

Public Health Sudbury and Districts figures found 105 in 2020, compared to 56 the year before

A collection of white crosses in downtown Sudbury, Ont., representing individuals who have lost their lives in the opioid crisis. (Yvon Theriault/CBC)

Volunteers who've been helping to keep drug users safe in Greater Sudbury aren't surprised by new statistics indicating deaths from drug overdoses in the northern Ontario region have almost doubled in one year.

Figures released last week by Public Health Sudbury and Districts found 105 opioid-related deaths in 2020, compared to 56 in 2019. 

"Yes, these statistics are startling, but not to those of us who are working on the ground, not to those of us who are seeing it on a daily basis," says Karla Ghartey, a nurse, Cambrian College professor and founding member of Sudbury Temporary Overdose Prevention Society (STOPS).

Karla Ghartey, a professor of nursing at Cambrian College in Sudbury and advocate, says people working on the ground aren't surprising by the increase in opioid-related deaths. (Kate Rutherford/CBC)

STOPS regularly provides clean drug supplies to users and makes sure no one overdoses. Everyone who works with the society is a volunteer.

"It's not a surprise because we are working on the ground and we are seeing the effects of the opioid poisoning crisis in front of our faces," said Ghartey.

"This just actually brings the numbers to the sort of anecdotal evidence.

"You show up at the site one day, you see someone's face and the next day you find out that they've passed away, or you show up at the site and someone's overdosing."

Ghartey partially blames the pandemic for the increase in deaths, since many social services were either reduced or suspended during 2020. The lack of temporary or affordable housing compounds the drug issue.

But she's also angry that despite two years of advocacy by STOPS to get a safe consumption site established in Greater Sudbury, it hasn't come to fruition. 

"We are doing this voluntarily. We are out there every single night. Why is it that the community has to be doing this for two years now?"

When it comes to reducing the number of deaths, Ghartey says there isn't any one answer.

"I think opening up a supervised consumption and treatment service as soon as possible, regardless of a location … I don't think that's going to end the opiate poisoning crisis, but I think it's going to keep our folks alive."

Major problem for northern Ontario

Ghartey also wants to see more provincial and national recognition of the drug problem in Sudbury and northern Ontario.

"Currently the highest opioid deaths [in Ontario] are in the North.

"Part of the response could possibly be others putting pressure on our community and the stakeholders in our community, to take action, or to put pressure on the provincial government to take action on our behalf, because what's happening in our city is not enough; the pressure is not strong enough or I don't know what it is, but I think this needs to go to the broader community."

Statistics for the number of deaths in the four other northeastern Ontario communities in 2020 and 2019, respectively, are:

  • Algoma Public Health: 53 compared to 17.
  • North Bay Parry Sound Health Unit: 51 compared to 19.
  • Porcupine Health Unit: 40 compared to 22.
  • Timiskaming Health Unit: seven compared to five.

With files from Angela Gemmill