Recent overdose deaths in Simcoe-Muskoka part of an 'ongoing trend,' experts say
5 people died in region in first week of 2023 due to suspected overdoses, statistics show
Ontario Provincial Police sounded the alarm last week after four people in the Simcoe-Muskoka area died from suspected opioid overdoses in a span of four days.
The warning advised the public that a "highly potent and potentially fatal strain" of illicit opioid may be circulating in Simcoe County and the District Municipality of Muskoka. But experts in the region say the area has been hit hard by the opioid crisis, and four overdose deaths in a week isn't uncommon.
Data from the Simcoe-Muskoka health unit at the end of 2022 shows an average of 13 people in the region wind up in emergency rooms each week due to suspected overdoses.
Dr. Lisa Simon, associate medical officer of health for the Simcoe-Muskoka District Health Unit, says like other parts of the country, there has been an escalation in drug-related deaths over the last few years.
"Unfortunately, this is part of an ongoing trend we have seen for several years now of a dramatic loss of life and like these individuals, it's often young adults," she said.
Simon says the shift started with the introduction of fentanyl into the street drug supply in 2017, and the number of deaths continued to escalate into 2019.
"At that time, it was clearly unacceptably high levels when alarm bells were already ringing. But then the pandemic hit and the rate of opioid related harms and deaths got even higher," she said.
Simon added 2021 saw the highest number of suspected overdose deaths on record in the region — 95 in the first six months.
The data recorded 66 confirmed and probable opioid-related deaths in Simcoe-Muskoka in the first six months of 2022. Those numbers are lower than the same period in 2021, but still substantially higher than before the pandemic.
Simon says over the last few months the region has recorded an average of three deaths per week due to drug related overdoses.
The Simcoe Muskoka Drug Strategy — a large partnership of agencies and organizations — continues to work to address opioid related harms in the region.
Drug supply 'incredibly unpredictable,' expert warns
Dr. Tara Gomes, the lead principal investigator of the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network housed at Toronto's St. Michael's Hospital, says the Simcoe-Muskoka data mirrors what's happening across the country.
"When we look at what's happening with the illicit drug supply, which is that it's incredibly unpredictable, we often see clusters of overdoses that happen," she said, adding when a more potent fentanyl analog enters the supply, a spate of deaths can happen in a matter of days or hours.
"It might be in a particular city or region because the supply that is there at any given time might be much more potent than people are used to and it can increase the likelihood of overdose," Gomes explained.
She says the situation across the province continues to be urgent.
"The reality is thousands of people are dying in our province every single year."
Jeremy McIvor, the program manager at GreeneStone Centre for Recovery, an inpatient treatment centre in Bala, Ont., about 190 kilometres north of Toronto, says local organizations continue to be alarmed by what they're seeing daily.
"In remote locations, accessibility to care is a huge barrier. Especially in marginalized communities or Indigenous communities, access to services can be incredibly difficult," McIvor said.
"On top of that, adding in shame and stigma and not wanting to reach out for help or not knowing how to reach out for help can be huge deterrents."
McIvor says GreeneStone looks at substance use as a symptom or condition of an underlying problem.
"When we look at opioids specifically, their purpose is a painkiller ...Why are so many people in pain and needing to take this for relief?" he said.
Community outreach continues to be a large part of the work GreeneStone and other agencies are doing to address the opioid crisis in their local communities.
"We're really working hard to break down those barriers, break down the stigma, let people know that help is available, and it's not something that's shameful," McIvor said.