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Northern Ontario has had the highest opioid death rate in the province during COVID-19

With Sudbury district having the highest opioid death per 100,000 population in the province, local Board of Health approves a pan-Northern strategy to find solutions
white crosses crop-old
The white crosses memorial to those lost to the opioid crisis in the region can be found at the corner of Paris and Brady streets in downtown Sudbury.

As the opioid crisis continues in Sudbury, the region’s Board of Health has unanimously endorsed a motion to have Public Health Sudbury & Districts team up with other northern health units to find a way to stop the growing number of opioid overdoses in communities across Northern Ontario.

The motion will see Dr. Penny Sutcliffe, medical officer of health for Public Health Sudbury, work with her counterparts at health units across the North.

The action came out of the regular meeting of PHSD board meeting held Thursday afternoon. It followed an in-depth presentation by Josée Joliat, a public health nurse in mental health and addictions with the PHSD’s Health Promotion Division.

Among other things, Joliat has been one of the key people responsible for the search for a supervised drug consumption site in Sudbury, a course of action that was recommended by the Community Drug Strategy, which researched and authored a formal needs assessment and study. 

Currently that effort is stalled as the search continues to find a suitable site in the downtown area of Sudbury. Regardless, Joliat said the effort continues to find a site and to continue to find ways to ease the impact of the opioid crisis.

"I am here today to sound the alarm and urge support and to find solutions to address the desperate need as the opioid poison crisis continues to rage across not only our city, but our province and the entire country," said Joliat.

She added there are specific goals with the drug strategy that include improving community health, addressing drug-related issues and encouraging partnerships among multiple stakeholders.

Another key goal she said is "to build a safer and healthier Sudbury, one that is free from the harm related to substance use."

Joliat said recent figures from the Office of the Chief Coroner for Ontario indicated that things are not getting better.

“A report released by Public Health Ontario just yesterday, points out there has been a 60-per-cent increase in opioid deaths from March to December 2020, compared to the same time period in 2019.

"During the pandemic, the rate of opioid-related deaths has increased in half of the 34 public health units in Ontario," said Joliat.

She said this has especially impacted Northern Ontario health units.

Joliat said this is believed in part to be due to the lower availability of health-related services in rural and remote regions, as well as isolation making it more difficult for people to reach out and access services. 

Across the province, Joliat said the level of opioid-related deaths before the pandemic was 7.9 deaths per 100,000 population. During the pandemic that figure rose to 14 deaths per 100,000 population, she said. 

Joliat also told the meeting that the five highest rates of opioid-related deaths took place in Northern Ontario, with Sudbury having the highest death rate during the pandemic.

She also provided a stark statistic comparing the Sudbury district to the whole of Ontario. 

"When it comes to opioid-related deaths, our local percentage increase between 2019 and 2020 was 87.5 (per cent), while the province saw a 55-per-cent increase between those same two years."

Joliat said there have been steep increases in other local indicators such as emergency department visits and hospitalizations, involving uses of illicit opioids.

Joliat said while it would take time to fully absorb the impact the pandemic has had on northern communities, she said some things are clear the illegal drug market is contributing to fatal overdoses.

"We've already seen a reduction in services. And the already unpredictable and unregulated illicit drug market has become increasingly toxic. Stress, isolation and other pandemic-related factors have increased the risk associated with substance use." 

Joliat added that COVID-19 has heightened disparities in the city and specifically affects people who rely on illicit drugs.  

She recited the now familiar numbers that showed Sudbury's opioid fatality rate in 2019 as being 56 deaths and then in 2020 that rate took "a devastating jump" to 105 deaths.

"These numbers are extremely worrisome," said Joliat.

She said it shows the need for action and the Community Drug Strategy is moving in the right direction.

Joliat said there is no single solution that will solve the issue, but the plan to create a supervised consumption site is one course of action being pursued.

The drug strategy group, which includes the health unit, police, paramedics, the school of medicine and a host of other community agencies, has decided the consumption site is an appropriate move toward harm reduction while at the same time offering health and social services to drug addicts who would take advantage of a consumption site.

The search for such a site officially began last fall, but it has been without success. Joliat said the preference has been for a location close to, or part of, the downtown core where users would be able to access health and social services.

Joliat said the process is stalled on a couple of fronts. One is an application to the federal government for an exemption allowing for the consumption of illicit drugs. The second application is to the provincial government for operational funding approval. Both applications require a location, which is something that has not yet been determined.

In the meantime, Joliat endorsed the idea of working with other health agencies in Northern Ontario.

"We need to also consider the benefits of being able to collaborate with our Northern public health partners and relevant community partners as appropriate to amplify our regional concerns and investigate any potential strategies and resources," she said. 

Later in the meeting, as health board members discussed the issue, board chair René Lapierre said he had talked with health care officials in Vancouver about their decision to have a supervised injection and consumption site in that city.

“It made quite the impact on a decrease in deaths, also on access to services increase. But it also helped clean up some of the downtown, which you know for lack of better words, clean up, but there wasn’t as many people just on streets using, as what was prior to that ,” said Lapierre.

“I think the proof is in the pudding that this is a good way to go,” said Lapierre. 

Len Gillis is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at He covers health care in Northern Ontario.


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Len Gillis, local journalism initiative reporter

About the Author: Len Gillis, local journalism initiative reporter

Len Gillis is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at covering health care in northeastern Ontario and the COVID-19 pandemic.
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