Numbers on drug-related deaths in Manitoba show there were more overdose deaths reported across the province in 2020 than there were days in the year.
In chilling data released this week, Manitoba’s office of the chief medical examiner says it recorded 372 overdose deaths last year — a full 87-per cent jump in numbers from the previous year, when 199 drug-related deaths were reported.
The news has advocates like Marion Willis renewing calls for the provincial government to change how it looks at helping those struggling with drug addiction.
“All of these individuals were somebody’s son, somebody’s daughter, mother friend, a loved one — and their lives mattered,” said Willis, the executive director of Winnipeg-based Morberg House, which works with men overcoming addiction, homeless, and mental health challenges.
“This province and the country as a whole needs to take very the same proactive approach to the drug epidemic, provincially and nationally, as we have to try to address the COVID challenges.
“These are all health issues, this is all about saving lives… no one life is more important than another — a COVID death is no more significant than a overdose death.”
Willis says COVID-19 has “become the driver of homelessness, addiction, poverty” so she’s not surprised overdose deaths increased so dramatically while health and government officials have been kept busy with the pandemic.
She said the provincial government should have better planned for the effects the virus would have on mental health and addictions, including making sure there would be an adequate number of detox beds available while public health orders require physical distancing.
Detox beds, safe injection sites
Earlier this year, those requirements impacted bed capacity at two Main Street Project locations, forcing the organization to drop from 55 to 34 dedicated beds.
“We needed to double those beds, not reduce them,” Willis said.
“A solid pandemic plan would not only have a plan for shelter beds of isolation units for a vulnerable population, (but) it would also help plan for the fact that COVID emerged at the same time that we had a worrying drug epidemic in this province of the city.”
The majority of last year’s fatalities — 254 — involved at least one opioid, with fentanyl listed as a contributing factor in 196 of the deaths, according to the data.
Willis says it’s time the province provides funding to open safe injection sites for opioids, a move advocates have been recommending for years.
A 2019 report by health officials, front line workers and drug users found 80 per cent of users said they would use a safe consumption site if they could.
At the time of the report’s release, former Health Minister Cameron Friesen said the government disagreed with its findings.
“Our premier has been very clear, there really is no such thing as a safe methamphetamine consumption site,” Friesen said.
Vancouver opened the first safe consumption site in Canada back in 2003. Since then, there have been millions of visits, and, numbers from 2019 showed staff had reversed more than 6,400 overdoses. Calgary opened its first permanent site in 2017 as have Edmonton, Toronto and Montreal.
“We are so far behind when addressing the drug epidemic, when you compare us to other cities across Canada,” said Willis.
“The science is really clear, the evidence base is really clear — safe consumption sites do save lives.”
Premier Brian Pallister said the province still has no plans to open safe injection sites when asked specifically if his government would consider changing its opposition to the idea in light of the latest overdose death data.
“We’ve been investing more and more resources, we’ve been directing more and more of our skilled people, and we’ve established a department solely for the purpose of working on wellness and healing,” he said at a media availability Tuesday.
“I think that too often the debate goes to the wedge between those who think a safe consumption site is the right answer and those who disagree and want to work on other priorities.
“I think that rather we should continue to do as we’ve been doing.”
–With files from Brittany Greenslade