Thunder Bay

Opioid overdoses a 'crisis' in Thunder Bay say first responders, harm reduction workers

Opioid overdoses have become a community crisis in the Thunder Bay area, and support from other levels of government is desperately needed, a group of emergency first responders and harm reduction workers in the city said Wednesday.

News conference held in Thunder Bay to call for support from senior levels of government

Naloxone has been administered by first-responders in Thunder Bay to people suspected of overdosing on opioids more than 50 times so far this year. Opioid overdoses in the Thunder Bay area have reached crisis levels, city emergency response and harm reduction workers said Wednesday. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Opioid overdoses have become a community crisis in the Thunder Bay area, and support from other levels of government is desperately needed, a group of emergency first responders and harm reduction workers in the city said Wednesday.

At a media conference held Wednesday at Thunder Bay Police Service headquarters, city drug strategy coordinator Cynthia Olsen said opioid overdoses have become the leading cause of death for people who use drugs in Canada.

In the Thunder Bay area, there were 44 opioid overdose deaths in 2018, according to preliminary numbers released by Public Health Ontario.

That's a 40 per cent increase when compared to 2017, when there were 31 recorded opioid overdose deaths.

Paramedics with Superior North EMS have responded to more than 175 opioid-related calls so far this year, statistics released at the news conference show. Naloxone has been administered by paramedics, firefighters or police 53 times in the same period.

Further, officials are aware of more than 80 other instances, where Naloxone was administered to someone suspected of overdosing by a bystander.

Thunder Bay Deputy Fire Chief Greg Hankkio said first-responders are finding themselves in more situations involving violence, or the potential for violence, when responding to calls.

"It definitely does have an impact, not only on the community and the city," he said. "It does have an impact on our resources, and we're clearly noting that."

Taking advantage of vulnerable people

Thunder Bay police Staff Sgt. Shawn Harrison said the opioids being encountered in the city are largely the result of southern Ontario-based organized crime groups who are taking advantage of vulnerable people.

The gangs, he said, "have seen the addiction issues of this city as an opportunity to make a lot of money."

"These gangs target, take advantage, and trap people with addictions."

Thunder Bay police have teamed up with a number of other police services, including the OPP, Nishnawbe Aski Police Service, and Anishinabek Police Service on project disruption, which is focused on addressing gang and drug activity in the region.

And while the project has been successful, Harrison said the problem isn't one police can "arrest our way out of."

'Things we can do'

"As a police service, we will continue our efforts to disrupt the drug trade but the growing problem of substance abuse and addiction will continue to provide these gangs with more opportunities and incentive to come to Thunder Bay," Harrison said.

The statistics shared Wednesday, Olsen said, "represent our family, friends, individuals who live in our community."

"There are things we can do to address overdose deaths in our community," she said.

Those include long-term prevention initiatives aimed at young people and families, as well as offering more treatment options, and increasing access to them.

"Over the years, in our community, there has been an expansion of these services, such as withdrawal management, and the creation of a rapid access to addiction medicine clinic," Olsen said. "Both of these are at, or over capacity, and these types of interventions need to be expanded."

'Asking for more help'

There have been other important steps taken to date, as well, Olsen said.

That includes development of a community overdose prevention program, leading to Naloxone becoming widely available in Thunder Bay; NorWest Community Health Centres's supervised consumption site is also proving successful, she said, with efforts underway to expand its hours.

More supports are needed and those at the media conference said other levels of government need to step in to assist communities like Thunder Bay as they struggle with an opioid crisis.

"This isn't just about law enforcement, this is about dealing with a real health and safety issue that needs broader help and support," said Thunder Bay police's director of communications Chris Adams.

"You can only do so much, and, quite frankly, there has been quite a bit of downloading on municipalities to try and deal with many issues that sometimes are a little bit out of their scope financially."

"So, yes, we're asking for more help," he said. "And, I think, we're probably not alone in that, asking for all levels of government to recognize the crisis that opioids are presenting to communities like ours."