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Simcoe Muskoka Opioid Strategy releases plan to address growing opioid overdose crisis

Members of the Simcoe Muskoka Opioid Strategy steering committee. Hannah Jackson / Global News

Following a particularly tragic month for opioid overdose-related incidents in the area, the Simcoe Muskoka Opioid Strategy (SMOS) steering committee released a comprehensive strategy to address opioid use, addiction and overdose in the region.

Last week on June 27, the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit issued a public service announcement warning the public that the number of suspected overdose cases in the region had risen above recent levels. According to the release, between June 17 to June 26, Simcoe and Muskoka hospitals saw 44 suspected drug overdoses.

In an effort to address the ongoing crisis, the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit and the North Simcoe Muskoka Local Health Integration Network (NSM LHIN) formed the SMOS partnership.

According to SMOS, the strategy was developed over more than a year of work, and incorporates input from approximately 45 local agencies, organizations and the voices of individuals who have experienced the harms of opioid misuse.

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The SMOS strategy contains five action pillars:

  1. Prevention
  2. Treatment/clinical practice
  3. Harm reduction
  4. Enforcement
  5. Emergency management

The five action pillars are based on the two “foundational pillars” of lived experience and data evaluation.

Numbers trending up

That data shows opioid-related overdoses are increasing at an alarming rate in the region.

According to data sourced from the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, opioid overdose emergency department visit rates in Simcoe Muskoka have doubled compared to what was observed between 2010 and 2014, and have tripled compared to the rates observed in 2004 to 2008.

Numbers sourced from the Ministry of Health and Long-term Care revealed there were 434 opioid-poisoning emergency department visits in Simcoe Muskoka in 2017.

Similarly, numbers from the Chief Coroner’s office show that between 2015 and 2016, 100 opioid overdose-related deaths were reported in Simcoe Muskoka, a 35 per cent increase from statistics recorded for 2013/14.

“The impact of opioids in our region has been devastating,” Dr. Lisa Simon, co-chair of SMOS said in a statement. “Deaths are only the tip of the iceberg, with huge effects of individuals, families, communities and service providers. As was said to me by an individual with lived experience of opioid use, we cannot let this become the new normal.”

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‘No life is exempt’

One woman who knows the true devastation of the opioid overdose crisis is Evelyn Pollock. She lost her son to opioid overdose. Now she shares his story in order to make a difference.

“We loved our son dearly, and we struggled with him through the years,” she said.

Pollock says her son struggled with drug use for years, but tragically succumbed to his addiction in 2017, at the age of 43.

Evelyn Pollock holds up a photo of her son who tragically died of an opioid overdose in 2017. Hannah Jackson / Global News

“It’s a problem that really is an epidemic, and one thing I want to say is that I believe we have to separate addiction from the opioid crisis. The opioid crisis is not about addicts, it’s not about addiction. Any family can experience this kind of loss — no life is exempt,” said Pollock. She says this is because synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and carfentanil are pouring into Canada, and making their way into drugs.

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“It can happen to anyone in an instant. Our son died instantly. His brain stopped his body from breathing the moment he injected whatever it is he thought he was taking,” she said.

Why Simcoe Muskoka?

How those synthetic opioids are getting to the Simcoe Muskoka region, and why the region has seen such an alarming spike in opioid-related overdoses remains unclear.

Co-lead of the enforcement pillar, OPP Det.-Insp. Jim Walker, says it is unclear where the drugs are coming from, and he is not sure why Barrie and Simcoe County has seen a spike in numbers. “It’s something the committee is looking into, why are we at that level, and are there things we can do to address that within the community,” he said.

Walker says from a law enforcement perspective, Simcoe Muskoka isn’t any different than any other community in terms of the way drug trafficking is policed or investigated. “Ultimately for us, gathering intelligence into who’s supplying, who’s trafficking and who is manufacturing is what we are doing,” he said.

New clinics offer support to those looking to quit

The full SMOS strategy comes just weeks after two Rapid Access Addiction Medicine (RAAM) clinics opened in the region in order to help those dealing with drug use and addiction.

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READ MORE: First Simcoe County RAAM clinic opens in Barrie to address opioid-overdose crisis

The new drop-in clinics are designed to serve individuals 16 years of age and older who are struggling with substance use. The RAAM clinics also provide resources to family members seeking personal support regarding a loved one’s addiction.

The clinics offer various services including pharmacotherapy, counselling services, trauma-informed care and will help to connect patients to psycho-social supports within the community.

More help in the works

Similarly, an application is pending for a possible overdose prevention site in Barrie. The Gilbert Centre, along with the Simcoe County branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), filed an application with the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care to appeal for funding as one part of the multi-faceted harm reduction pillar of the SMOS plan.

The application was submitted back in April, however, it is still unclear whether the application will be approved or denied.

“There hasn’t been any word from the province, yes or no. At this point, it’s up in the air,” said Matt Turner, harm reduction co-ordinator at the Gilbert Centre.

In June, the ministry told Global News they were unable to comment on the status of the application, as the ministry was in caretaker mode following the election.

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Turner says accessibility issues with the application may have contributed to the long wait on the decision. He says while he was hoping to hear from the province before the writ was drawn, he will be following up in the next few days with the province and will hopefully receive an answer.

READ MORE: Mental health experts push for overdose prevention site as Barrie’s opioid crisis escalates

While the wait continues, Turner maintains that overdose prevention sites are critical in helping people vulnerable to opioid overdoses.

“Harm reduction is the first entry and engagement for folks to engage with care, so OPS is that first place folks might engage with where they can access treatments, supports and other benefits.  You can’t have treatment without harm reduction,” he said.

Turner says overdose prevention sites allow people to inject in a space that is safe, monitored and where support from social services and other valuable providers are readily available.

“People who have died — we can’t treat them for overdoses, so we need to get them before they pass,” he said. “It really is that first entry of care and we need this as part of the overall strategy. It’s just as important as treatment,” he said.

The full SMOS plan, and more information about the opioid overdose crisis in Simcoe Muskoka can be found here. 

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