‘Everybody’s responsibility’: Number of deadly overdoses surging in Manitoba

This illustration image shows tablets of opioid painkiller Oxycodon delivered on medical prescription taken on September 18, 2019 in Washington,DC. (Photo by Eric BARADAT / AFP) (Photo by ERIC BARADAT/AFP via Getty Images). Getty Images)

The number of people who died from drug overdoses surpassed 400 in Manitoba last year and there are renewed calls for more to be done to curb the deadly trend that has surged during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Preliminary data provided to The Canadian Press from the chief medical examiner’s office shows there were 407 drug-related deaths in 2021 – more than double the historical average of 200.

In 2020, 372 people died from fatal overdoses as the global pandemic set in. There were 200 deaths in 2019 and 202 the year before.

“Our numbers will just increase,” said Arlene Last-Kolb, whose son Jessie died of a fentanyl overdose in 2014 at the age of 24.

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“And what will happen is eventually everyone will be directly affected by this,” she added.

The Public Health Agency of Canada has said there is evidence the COVID-19 pandemic is contributing to the ongoing overdose crisis, resulting in record fatalities across the country. Factors include more toxic drugs as well as feelings of isolation, stress and anxiety. There could also be changes in accessibility to services for people who use drugs, the agency said.

Last-Kolb co-founded the group Overdose Awareness Manitoba after her son’s death. She is also a member of the national advocacy group Moms Stop The Harm.

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Each year, Last-Kolb said, her heart breaks as more families lose loved ones to preventable overdose deaths. She said the numbers will continue to grow until Manitoba starts looking at harm reduction, including supervised consumption sites and a safe supply of drugs.

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A special advisory committee with federal, provincial and territorial input on the opioid epidemic said last month that interventions, including using naloxone to reverse overdoses, supervised consumption sites and safer supply programs, are all invaluable in preventing overdose deaths.

Manitoba does not have a safe consumption site.

Members of the Bear Clan Patrol, a safety group, picked up about 520 used needles in a three-hour patrol of a few Winnipeg blocks earlier this week, said executive director Kevin Walker.

“It seems to be getting worse rather than getting better,” he said.

In the city’s North End neighbourhood, the patrol picked up 11,000 needles between September and December, he added.

Bernadette Smith, mental-health critic for the province’s Opposition NDP, said it’s possible to save lives if Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government is willing to change its approach.

“They aren’t hitting the mark that they need to be, especially when you have 407 loved ones that have passed away,” Smith said.

She said people have told her about not being able to get treatment because centres are closed or they’ve been turned away. Smith suggests longer-term services are needed to provide help for a variety of mental health and social issues.

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“The significant increase in overdose deaths since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic is tragic,” said Mental Health Minister Sarah Guillemard in an emailed statement.

“These deaths have impacted families, friends, communities and our province as a whole.”

Manitoba Shared Health said in an emailed statement that the increasing deaths highlight difficulties faced by people with substance use challenges. The department pointed to existing rapid access addiction clinics and an opioid treatment program as investments in harm reduction.

Smith has introduced a private member’s bill that, if passed, would require the province to release more accurate data on overdose deaths.

Earlier this year, the Tory government introduced a five-year plan for mental health care and addiction recovery. While full details are not available, the government has said the plan will reduce waitlists and expand access to services.

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With deaths increasing each year, it’s long past the time for laying out plans, Last-Kolb said. It’s time for action.

“It is everybody’s responsibility to do more,” she said.

“These are preventable deaths. We have to do better.”

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