In a saddening projection, the Algoma district might see a total of 60 opioid-related deaths for the year 2020.
“In the first half of 2020, there have already been 26 confirmed opioid-related deaths and four deaths that are likely opioid-related but not yet confirmed. This puts Algoma on pace to experience between 52 and 60 opioid-related deaths in 2020 if the current pace continues,” wrote Jordan Robson, Algoma Public Health (APH) epidemiologist, in an email to SooToday.
Those 52 to 60 deaths would be a grim record-breaking number.
2018 was previously the worst year on record for our area in terms of opioid-related deaths, at 26.
Like APH, other northeastern public health units are also seeing higher opioid-related deaths in 2020 as well, with 105 in the first six months of the year compared to a high of 119 in all of 2019.
Since 2015, the Algoma region has been experiencing a rise in opioid-related deaths.
Those figures were contained in a report to APH board of health members at their most recent monthly meeting, held Oct. 28.
With these grim statistics in mind, a resolution was passed at the meeting, calling on the provincial government to recommit to the opioid crisis “via investments in local public health and community-based services, including the approval of funding for a regional Level III residential withdrawal management services facility, to be located in Sault Ste. Marie.”
Level I and II withdrawal management involves a supportive environment such as residential withdrawal, whereas Level III also involves medical withdrawal management.
The APH board passed a resolution to support a Level III facility in Feb. 2019.
Sault Area Hospital’s 2016 proposal (and a May 2020 re-application) for a Level III residential withdrawal management facility, supported by APH, remains unanswered by the province.
Also of concern to APH is the closure of the Sault’s Neighbourhood Resource Centre (NRC) on Gore Street in March.
The centre, for six years, had provided resources and navigation to services for those suffering from addictions.
There may be a COVID-19 connection to the worsening of the opioid scourge in the Sault and Algoma district, APH notes.
“A Canadian study found that people who use substances reported a loss of social connection and supports, as well as increased fear, anxiety and isolation as a result of COVID-19, making them more vulnerable to the health impacts of the virus and the hardships of physical distancing,” a report to the APH board states.
In the meantime, APH is now part of a planning committee for a new Community Health and Recovery Hub, a member organization of the Sault Ste. Marie & Area Drug Strategy, continues to provide needle exchange services and Naloxone distribution across the district and is working to cut down on the stigma and discrimination faced by those with substance use disorders and mental illness.
“It is important to remember that substance use disorder (addiction) should be treated as a medical condition and not as a moral failure. We can all make a difference by using language that is respectful of all people and promotes health and well-being,” wrote Allison McFarlane, APH public health nurse, in an email to SooToday.
“Health harms from opioid use is an ongoing concern for the Algoma district. The burden of this problem extends beyond health harms to citizens (i.e. opioid poisonings and deaths) to include system-wide strains such as emergency department (ED) visits, hospitalizations, and financial and mental health strain experienced by caregivers when caring for family members and friends living with substance use disorder,” McFarlane wrote, underscoring APH’s stated need for a Level III facility in the Sault.