Pubdate: Fri, 02 Feb 2018
Source: Standard, The (St. Catharines, CN ON)
Copyright: 2018 St. Catharines Standard
Author: Allan Benner
Page: A1


"It's so unbearably soul-crushing," says Jennifer Johnson, referring
to Niagara's exponential increase in opioid overdoses. "When is this
going to end?" A report presented at a Niagara Region public health
committee meeting this week shows a 335 per cent increase in the
number of opioid overdoses that Niagara Emergency Medical Service
paramedics responded to last year.

In 2017 paramedics responded to 520 suspected overdoses, compared to
155 a year earlier.

"You look at the news from out in B.C. and they've been knee-deep in
this for years. But the numbers keep exponentially growing," said
Johnson, co-founder of NAMES (Niagara Area Moms Ending Stigma), who
lost her 25-year-old son Jonathan to a fentanyl overdose in April 2016.

The staggering figure presented to committee members this week does
not reflect the full extent of the opioid problem.

StreetWorks, a program run by Positive Living Niagara, distributes
naloxone kits to treat patients suffering from opioid overdoses. That
organization, too, saw a huge increase in the use of the kits.

In 2017, 420 of the naloxone kits StreetWorks distributed were used,
compared to 147 a year earlier. And Niagara paramedics were only
called in for a portion of those overdoses.

Those numbers also do not include naloxone kits that were distributed
through other sources, such as pharmacies.

"When we talk about a crisis within multiple crises, it means really
that this isn't an entirely new problem," said Niagara's associate
medical officer of health, Dr. Andrea Feller.

"What's different now is that fentanyl and other synthetic opioids and
things like carfentanil are really capable of causing death quite
quickly." Although 2017's statistics were overall exceptionally high
in Niagara, Feller said the bulk of the increase occurred in the early
summer months that year.

"Our more recent data has gone back to that new baseline. I don't want
to call it a new normal by any means. But that baseline that we had
was bad enough in terms of one to two EMS calls a day, and
unfortunately 40 to 60 deaths per year," she said.

The health department has teamed up with local governments, emergency
services, community agencies and groups of concerned area residents in
the hope of reducing the number of deaths and overdoses.

Feller said the organizations, operating as the newly named Overdose
Prevention and Education Network of Niagara (OPENN), are currently
working on Health Canada applications for supervised injection sites -
facilities that are needed "right across the region."

While the Health Canada application process "is quite rigorous and
lengthy," Feller said the province has recently introduced a similar
but smaller-scale initiative to establish temporary overdose
prevention sites.

"Those are really sort of basic, no barrier sites that just do the
basic services around naloxone, and around supervised injection. The
province will fund them, and the application is much less onerous and
the turnaround time is about two weeks," she said. "We understand that
there is at least one partner in the community that is quite close to
having the approvals from their landlord and their board, and maybe
proceeding to an application."

She said it's likely that the first of those facilities would be
located in St. Catharines where 'the darkest and deepest of the
hotspots" is located.

Efforts are also underway to increase the distribution of naloxone,
with about 20 additional teams trained in its use, while pharmacists
and addiction treatment clinics are also working to meet the demand.

Meanwhile, efforts are also focusing on education, including a recent
meeting with District School Board of Niagara administration to
discuss the issue, as well as an event planned by NAMES for 1 p.m.,
Sunday, Feb. 18, at The Tower at 7 Gale Cres., with speakers including
St. Catharines St. George's Ward Coun. Mike Britton and StreetWorks
outreach worker Talia Storm.

"We're not quite there yet, but I do feel pretty good talking with
partners across Ontario that we're doing the right steps here in terms
of utilizing this opportunity to increase our communications and
increase our cross-sectoral collaboration around it."

St. Catharines Mayor Walter Sendzik, who has recently discussed his
commitment for establishing a supervised injection site in the city,
spoke about the problem during a Jan. 15 city council meeting.

"There's a lot of people struggling from addictions. It is an
epidemic. It's not going away. It's something that we as a council and
as a community have to be a part of and have to participate to try and
provide the services required to try and lift people that are facing
this addiction," he said. "It's growing not just here in Niagara, it's
growing across the country. We've got to continue to work with our
public health officials."

St. Catharines, too, is taking action to deal with the

St. Catharines acting fire Chief Jeff McCormick is quietly doing a lot
of work behind the scenes "to ensure our firefighters have the tools
to respond to the issues where people have experienced an overdose."

"Fentanyl is a very dangerous drug and it's in our community," he
said. "These are some of the hard discussions that I think we need to
have more of, not just here around the table but in our networks of
friends and family and community members and figure out what we've got
to do to improve these situations."

Despite the efforts being made, Regional Chair Alan Caslin said too
few people seem aware of the Region's response to the growing crisis.

"I just don't want to hear again, 'What are you doing about it?'" he
said during the public health committee meeting.

"Here we do the work, we put the communications out in the form of an
update, but we seem to not be resonating with the community and those
who want to hear about it."

Welland Coun. George Marshall pointed out challenges in reaching a
target audience, because of the changing way people look for

"I think we need a plan," Marshall said. "We should be able to put
this out on different forums, and it needs a communications strategy."

Fort Erie Mayor Wayne Redekop said the Region may need more than the
six staff in the public relations department "to figure this out."

"This is a topic that is extremely important and of great interest in
Niagara," he said. "I would think that we should have adequate
resources here to put together a plan to communicate this."

Johnson is doing her part to contribute, too.

"I think that many social agencies are working their butts off. The
desire is there and we're putting together a comprehensive plan. It
really is coming along," she said.

Still, Johnson understands the frustration felt in the

"It needs to be all hands on board," she said. "Unfortunately, there's
stigma. It all comes down to stigma. Until we can get the majority of
the population not looking down their nose at these people, it's not
going to be properly addressed … Where did sensitivity go in all this?"

Johnson welcomed efforts to establish supervised injection

"We'd be right in on that," Johnson said. "It'd be great. And it's
such a simple thing to set up. There's really not much involved to
save people's lives."

She sighed, adding, "it's government red tape and bureaucracy."

But such a facility would not have saved Johnson's son. She said
Jonathan-ask ill ed chef who worked for several upscale Toronto
restaurants - wouldn't have used it.

Again, because of the stigma.

"He was putting on a mask," she said. "He was working 60 to 70 hours a
week, and high-functioning. Shame would have kept him away."

She said the biggest challenge in dealing with the opioid crisis is
reaching people like Jonathan, "who you would never imagine are
substance users."

"All we can do is keep talking about it because as stigma decreases,
then it's not a matter of shame when society realizes this is
anybody's child."
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