'It takes us away from the other patients': Meth use causing resource shortages for health officials
'We have to keep these people locked up'
A rise in meth use — and a potentially contaminated strain — is causing resource shortages for health officials in Windsor-Essex.
Erie Shores HealthCare alone is expecting to almost double the number of emergency room visits related to meth use. Its data predicts 200 visits between 2019 and 2020 will come as a result of using crystal meth.
Betweeen 2017 and 2018, 116 visits were attributed to the drug.
"We've seen an increase in all types of drugs," said Dr. Wajid Ahmed, medical officer of health with the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit.
Ahmed said the drug strategy the health unit has been working on for the last few years involves "pooling resources" to address the drug problem in the community, involving area hospitals and treatment centres.
"Methamphetamine is probably much more prevalent than opioids. The risk is higher with opioid use, but that doesn't make methamphetamine less harmful," said Ahmed. "We need a more comprehensive solution."
In Windsor, Dr. Paul Bradford, interim chief of emergency medicine, said the emergency department has seen an increase in meth patients.
"It seems like there's more availability of meth as a product," said Bradford. "It seems to be stronger, more potent. Symptoms last a day or two days."
Bradford said the focus around the drug crisis tends to be on opioid use because "generally, meth doesn't kill you" but that meth users take away emergency room resources and staff from more serious conditions.
Developing 'prison guard' skills
"Opiates lead to death, but [meth], because of the combative nature, it takes a lot of our resources," said Bradford.
"It seems like what we're doing is we have to keep these people locked up. Our skill set has changed, we're developing skills like prison guards. I think it takes us away from the other patients."
This might be because of a new kind of meth, with different symptoms and related side effects. Testing done at Erie Shores showed a less pure form of meth.
Ahmed said this could mean what's readily available on the streets is tainted.
Kristin Kennedy, the Erie Shores vice president of patient services, agreed, noting that meth users presenting to the emergency department show up with extreme psychological effects including paranoia, hallucinations, aggression and anxiety.
"The cases of severe psychosis associated with crystal meth has increased exponentially," said Dr. Rachel Burdette, chief of psychiatry at Erie Shores.
Bradford said there isn't much that emergency room staff can do for a meth user.
"We don't have much to offer until it wears off," said Bradford. "We're getting to the point where we need to consider have a jail in our [emergency room]."
This "new" meth is creating longer stays for users, who then often re-visit the emergency department after another use gone bad.
"The psychosis that we're seeing and the acting out behaviours that we're seeing when they present to the E.R. have drastically changed," said Kennedy.
"They're so significant that it does require the patients to stay in the E.R. for upwards of 24 hours prior to even having a psychiatry assessment completed so that they're in a more clear state."
Ahmed said the health unit is doing what it can to "keep a close eye" on meth use in the community.
"Methamphetamine, it's more readily available on the streets. That's what makes it more challenging," said Ahmed. "It's hard to track."
With files from Amy Dodge