While everyone’s been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been another public health crisis unfolding at the same time without nearly the same degree of attention. From social isolation to tainted supply and the difficulty in accessing services, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the opioid pandemic, but there may be some relief at hand for Guelph and Wellington substance users.
On Thursday morning, Health Canada announced that Guelph Community Health Centre will be receiving $1.1 million over the next two years from their Substance Use and Addictions Program for a Safer Supply program. This will allow CHC to expand a pilot program they launched last fall with 10 participants to 150, and hire additional team members, including peer and outreach support, to oversee the expanded program.
“Safe supply projects are one way to support people with opioid use disorder as they provide an alternative to the toxic illegal drug supply,” said Guelph MP Lloyd Longfield at this morning’s virtual announcement. “Not only do they prevent overdoses, but they also connect patients with essential health and social services, including treatment, which may be more difficult to access during COVID-19. Initiatives like this one support people where they are, even when they’re not ready to seek treatment.”
The announcement comes a day after the release of a stunning report by the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network that said the province has seen a 79 per cent increase in opioid-related deaths since the start of the pandemic and that marginalized peoples have been disproportionately impacted. One-in-six opioid deaths have been among those experiencing homelessness, and more than half were unemployed at the time of their deaths.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has not only worsened the existing overdose crisis in Ontario, but is disproportionately impacting people who are vulnerably housed and who are attempting to navigate risks of COVID-19 infection and an increasingly volatile drug supply,” said Dr. Tara Gomes, a scientist at St. Michael’s Hospital in a statement. Her last point about the “volatile drug supply” is what today’s announcement hopes to primarily address.
“Many of the opioids and other substances that are circulating in our community have inconsistent strength and purity, the drug supply is poisoned,” said Melissa Kwiatkowski, Primary Health Director for Guelph CHC. “Since August 2018, our community has issued 18 health alert warning about the dangers of the toxic drug supply in our community. We have lost too many valued community members to opioid poisoning.”
Kwiatkowski said that the monitoring done by the CHC and Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health has shown a 260 per cent increase in fatal overdoses in the last year. More concerning is that the largest increase in fatal overdoses have been in adults between the ages of 25 and 44, and Dr. Ahmed Jakda, the medical director of safe supply program at Guelph CHC, believes the expanded safe supply program will stabilize these growing rates of overdose.
“We work as an interdisciplinary team to serve this population with a harm reduction approach, we want to reduce the number of overdoses and fatalities that are surging,” said Dr. Jakda. “Human beings need hope, and they need support, not stigma. Safer supply is one step in the right direction.”
There are strict criteria for those interesting in enrolling in the program, and according to CHC the program is best matched to people that have tried other treatment options and have found them unsuccessful. The interdisciplinary team at CHC has clinical protocol monitors it follows, and also connects patients to other essential health and social services in the process. The program is open to anyone in Guelph and Wellington County, and with outreach still an issue because of the pandemic, Kwiatkowski said they’re well prepared to find the ones in need and get them into the program.
“We have a really great network of outreach workers in the community, not just with the Community Health Centre but with many other partner organizations who know folks that they have great relationships with, and have worked to build trust,” Kwiatkowski explained.
“This is another important harm reduction tool in our toolbox, and it will save lives,” added Dr. Dorothy Bakker, a physician on the program’s Clinical Advisory Team, in a statement. “We know that when someone who struggles with complex opioid addictions has consistent access to safer, prescribed substances, it reduces the need to engage in behaviours that are associated with the illegal drug trade market, and in many cases, they are able to regain control over their lives.”