Newly released numbers from Public Health Sudbury and Districts show that the opioid overdose situation in the City of Greater Sudbury does not appear to be improving.
So far this year, from January to July 2021, Greater Sudbury Paramedic Services has responded to 492 suspected opioid-related incidents.
This is a significant increase compared to the 324 suspected opioid incidents the paramedics responded to in the same period last year. It is an increase of 51 per cent.
The new figures that were released on August 4, 2021 also revealed that from January to July of this year, there were 310 visits to the emergency department at Health Sciences North for suspected accidental overdoses. For the same period last year, there were 302 visits to the HSN emergency department.
These are not numbers that Dr. Tara Leary was looking forward to, but she understands why the numbers are there. She is hoping the public and political leaders can be more empathetic and understanding of the opioid problem.
Dr. Leary is a lead physician at the Rapid Access Addiction Medicine (RAAM) Clinic that is operated by Health Sciences North. It is described by the hospital as "designed to meet the rising rates of opioid use disorder, accidental overdoses, hospitalizations and ER visits in Northeastern Ontario."
Leary said since the RAAM clinic began operating in Sudbury almost six years ago, it has responded well locally to what has exploded into a national crisis in communities large and small across the country. But she said the work is far from complete.
"Despite the additional difficulties with COVID, it has been a really exciting time to be part of addiction services at the hospital and to see it grow from the RAAM comprehensive system of inpatient and outpatient care," said Leary.
She said there are no easy solutions right now.
"So, are we hopeful? Yes,” Leary said. “Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? No. It's far more complicated than that. Are we continuing to evolve to address the needs? We certainly are doing our best to do that, yes."
Leary said the RAAM team is determined and motivated.
"Unfortunately in the North we do have the dubious distinction of having in 2020, the worst overdose death provincially. And so that really does motivate us to address that, and really as the supply becomes more toxic, we become more aggressive in our treatment," she said.
Part of the problem, she said is the worsening or more toxic level of illicit substances being sold on the streets. She said this includes various concoctions that include heroin, crystal meth and fentanyl. Leary said there has been a significant number of new addicts along with the growing toxicity of new substances.
Leary is hoping that a change will eventually come through more funding for street-level treatment programs, mental health supports for addicts and affordable housing. She said this could be far cheaper than the current costs such as acute care beds in hospitals, various legal and justice costs, or putting addicts in jail.
Leary said it will likely mean a complete change in perceptions and empathy for addicts and their struggles.
"There is a lot of stigma around mental illness and addiction as a broad area. Opioid addiction is no exception. I would like to say I see that changing. Our harm reduction committee at the hospital that meets monthly, we are really working to change the culture among health care providers," she said.
Leary also said addiction is a chronic illness that is linked to our genetic makeup. She said many addicts can't help it when they get hooked on a drug.
"Whether we come from a background of tremendous love and need or whether we don't we then end up using substances that have a tremendous impact on our neurological development at the genetic level; have a tremendous impact on our ability to regulate our mood and our motivation and our energy," said Leary.
As for empathy, Leary said normal people would not begrudge a person with high blood pressure or diabetes for example. She said those conditions are also related to one's genetic disposition. She said ordinary people would do well to understand that people don't just wake up one morning and decide to be a drug addict.
"I think we have a general shortage of empathy across the board quite honestly and I don't think it is ever a bad thing to have more empathy for our neighbours, period."
Leary said things happen, unhappy circumstances, bad decisions, people try drugs for physical pain, for emotional pain and people get addicted.
Then when people try to change back and step away from drugs, it gets worse. Leary said addicts soon discover that walking away from drugs is a terrible experience. It's so much easier to take more drugs.
"The physical withdrawal can be a tremendous driver to continue using because of how physically and mentally horrible that somebody feels,” said Leary.
“They don't want to use. They want to stop, but they can't because of how terrible they feel physically; intractable vomiting, feeling freezing even though it's 40 degrees, feeling your bones, your muscles, your joints all ache; you have the worst case of the flu you can imagine; not being able to leave the bathroom — if you even have a bathroom — because of profuse diarrhea, splitting headache and emotional swings. Withdrawal is a terrifying experience.”
She said people would not be so judgmental for people who had struggles with any other chronic illness.
Leary said despite any emotional arguments, the numbers tell the true story. She has seen the coroner's reports for Sudbury overdose victims in 2020. Statistics gathered by PHSD showed that 105 people died in the PHSD jurisdiction in 2020, nearly double the death rate of 56 people, who succumbed to overdoses in 2019 in the Sudbury area. In 2018, that number was 32 deaths.
Leary said the issue is complex, and this is not the end of the story.
In the meantime, Leary said the work continues at RAAM and in other efforts on the street to try to ease the pain and suffering and to try to help people beat the addiction before more people die.
Len Gillis is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at Sudbury.com, covering health care in Northern Ontario. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the federal government.