Thunder Bay

Overdose deaths 'an epidemic on top of a pandemic' in Thunder Bay, Ont.

The number of fatal drug overdoses in Ontario has increased 25 per cent over last year, according to preliminary counts that includes probable as well as confirmed cases, according to the drug strategy coordinator for the City of Thunder Bay.

Preliminary data show the number of overdose deaths are on the rise in Thunder Bay, across Ontario

An increasingly toxic drug supply is leading to more overdose deaths in Thunder Bay, Ont., says the city's drug strategy coordinator. (David Maialetti/Associated Press)

The number of fatal drug overdoses in Ontario has increased 25 per cent over the same period last year, according to the drug strategy coordinator in Thunder Bay, Ont.

Cynthia Olsen said the pandemic is at least partly to blame because it has brought an increase in the toxicity of the drug supply and a decrease in people's willingness to reach out for help as services adapted to physical distancing.

"We're dealing with an epidemic [of a toxic drug supply] on top of a pandemic," she said.

There were eight confirmed or probable deaths by overdose in Thunder Bay in April alone, according to preliminary data available on Public Health Ontario's Interactive Opioid Tool. That's up from five deaths in the same month last year.

Public Health Ontario's Interactive Opioid Tool tracks confirmed and presumed overdose deaths in the province. (Public Health Ontario)

Olsen said the deaths in Thunder Bay are specifically related to opioid use, including morphine and prescription pain relievers and, more frequently in recent months, drugs poisoned with powerful synthetic opioids.

In the last five years, 142 people in Thunder Bay have died because of opioid poisoning, she said.

"Certainly the pandemic has highlighted that there are increasing overdoses across Ontario and so if we don't focus energy and resources on mitigating those harms, it's just going to get worse," Olsen said.

The social isolation required to keep people safe from COVID-19 is having an impact on mental health and "substance use is often used as a coping mechanism," she said. "It could be escalating the harms for individuals."

Thunder Bay drug strategy coordinator Cynthia Olsen says more resources are needed to cope with the increasingly toxic drug supply in the city. (Jody Porter/CBC)

Agencies such as the supervised consumption site, outreach harm reduction services, the Rapid Access to Addiction Medicine Clinic, and withdrawal management services in Thunder Bay have done a good job of adapting to the need for physical distancing and reaching out to clients, Olsen said.

Still, more resources are needed to meet the demand for services and prevent deaths, she said.

For example, studies have shown a second safe consumption site in Thunder Bay could save lives, but applying for the site and finding a way to break through Ontario's cap on the number of those sites in the province is currently beyond the capacity of local agencies, she said.

Without more services, the outlook is bleak.

"If we don't address [the growing need] we're only going to see more and more deaths," she said.

Preliminary data from Public Health Ontario shows Thunder Bay had eight overdose deaths in March, the first month of pandemic isolation protocols. The same month last year saw five deaths. (Public Health Ontario)





  • A previous version of this story stated there were eight confirmed or probable overdose deaths in Thunder Bay in March 2020. Those deaths occurred in April.
    Sep 03, 2020 9:02 AM ET