Thunder Bay

Thunder Bay paramedics report naloxone use jumped 5 times over previous year

Paramedics that serve Thunder Bay, Ont., and the surrounding area say the number of times naloxone, the antidote used to reverse the effects of opioid overdoses, was used and reported in 2018 jumped by more than five times over the previous year.

Data collected by Superior North EMS, published by Thunder Bay health unit

Paramedics in Thunder Bay reported a huge spike in the number of reported administrations of naloxone between 2017 and 2018. (Nolan Raynak)

Paramedics that serve Thunder Bay, Ont., and the surrounding area say the number of times naloxone, the antidote used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, was used and reported in 2018 jumped by more than five times over the previous year.

That comes as the head of the professional association of paramedics for Superior North EMS says he's struck by just how common emergency calls for overdoses have become, especially in the past five years or so.

"It's gotten to the point here where it's a daily occurrence, it's very bad," said Ryan Ross, a paramedic in Thunder Bay and the president of the Superior North Association of Professional Paramedics. "It hasn't gone away, it's just people have gotten used to it now ... which is unfortunate because we shouldn't be accepting that this is here to stay and not something that we can change."

According to data supplied by Superior North EMS and published by the Thunder Bay District Health Unit, the number of times naloxone was administered by paramedics jumped from 26 in 2017 to 90 in 2018.

Additionally, the number of times the antidote was reportedly administered by someone else in the community before paramedics arrived increased from 12 in 2017 to 114 in 2018.  Those numbers on third-party administrations only include instances when a paramedic arrived, recognized it was used and reported it, or when a community member reported it themselves.

That means those statistics "likely underestimate the true number of naloxone administrations in the community," according to public health officials. Ross has said paramedics aren't always called when someone else administers naloxone.

The number of naloxone kits in circulation in the community in recent years has also drastically increased, according to the health unit

In 2017, Thunder Bay had double the rate of deaths (18 per 100,000 people) as the provincial average (8.9 per 100,000), due to opioid overdoses.

'Russian roulette'

Even five years ago, Ross said paramedics weren't called nearly as often to deal with overdoses as they are now, even with naloxone — also known under the brand name Narcan — much more prevalent in the community.

"The harm reduction in that regard may be working in keeping people out of the hospital but may be not necessarily the best for these people because you know there's underlying addiction issues or mental health issues that aren't being assessed or treated," he said.

"So they're just continuing to use narcotics like they normally would and giving themselves Narcan and nothing's really changing, it's kind of just a big loop."

That means some cases where people are overdosing multiple times in a single day — or other dangerous behaviours.

"We've even had issues where there'd be a couple people taking, seeing how much opiates they can take before they go unconscious and then reviving themselves, or having their friend revive them, with Narcan," he said. "Almost like a Russian roulette-type of game, which is completely ridiculous."

More support needed for mental health, addictions

That means senior levels of government have to get serious about dealing with mental health, particularly providing resources for places like Thunder Bay, Ross said.

That would include "a complete revamp" of mental health care and establishing facilities like a large addictions rehabilitation and counselling centre, he said.

"Without any sort of rehabilitation centre or [far more] mental health resources to deal with the underlying causes of these addictions, this problem's not going to go away," Ross said.

"We're really behind when it comes to mental health resources and addictions counselling."

With files from Nicole Ireland