Thunder Bay leads Ontario in the number of opioid deaths per capita. Here’s how 2 organizations are handling the crisis


Outside the entrance to the downtown community warming shelter on the north side of Thunder Bay, Ontario, paramedics respond to a suspected overdose.

Staff at Elevate NWO, a community-based harm reduction organization in northwestern Ontario, had called 911 after an individual was unresponsive in their lobby.

At the same time the staff was called a block up the street because there was another person not answering.

A day earlier, someone overdosed in the organization’s parking lot, Elevate NWO general manager Holly Gauvin said. Two weeks earlier, someone had overdosed in the bathroom.

“It’s not uncommon for us over the past two years. We’ve been in this place for about six years now, and we’ve never seen numbers like the ones we’re seeing now.”

In 2021, 118 people are believed to have died from opioid-related overdoses in the Thunder Bay District alone, according to the most recent figures from Ontario’s Chief Coroner.

This is a person who died almost every three days last year.

When talking about the opioid crisis, British Columbia is often mentioned because six years ago the province declared a public health emergency due to drug-related deaths. Since, the situation seems to be getting worse.

On a per capita basis, however, more people have died in Thunder Bay than in Vancouver, as well as in all of Ontario’s other public health units.

The Thunder Bay District Health Unit’s catchment area recorded 76.3 deaths per 100,000 population in 2021, while Vancouver’s health service delivery recorded 72.6 deaths per 100,000 population, data shows. published by coroner’s offices in Ontario and British Columbia.

The situation in the District of Thunder Bay has left frontline organizations scrambling to save lives while navigating a social services landscape largely altered by building closures and other pandemic-related restrictions.

Elevate NWO is a great example of this. Traditionally a harm reduction organization focused on providing treatment, care and support for HIV and hepatitis C, it has significantly expanded its mandate to create safe spaces for all community members during the pandemic.

Elevate NWO opened and expanded a warming center — one of two in Thunder Bay last winter — so people can learn about harm reduction and access resources like clean needles to reduce transmission diseases.

“Last month alone we saw 1,600 people walk through our doors. This is with the same level of staffing as seven years ago, when we could have seen 30 people walk through our doors on a good day. fulfilled,” said Gauvin, adding a significant addition to their team was a First Nations elder who provides culturally appropriate supports and teachings.

The organization has also ventured into supportive housing by opening “harm reduction housing” with funding from the Thunder Bay Native Friendship Center and the District Social Services Administration Board. .

At Elevate NWO, people using its services can choose from these and other harm reduction supplies they might need. (Logan Turner/CBC)

The accommodation consists of three groups of five-bedroom units – each person has a bedroom and a bathroom, and a common space is shared. Instead of opening up rooms to individuals, Gauvin said, they focus on integrating established communities of homeless people into the apartments.

“Because they’re part of a community when they move into the units, they naturally look out for each other. So there’s an opportunity for someone to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to use substances this evening. Can you look for me?’

“But I will say that even with that precaution in there, we suffered losses,” Gauvin added. “That’s how toxic the substances are. That’s how dangerous they’ve become and why we need to keep pushing for a safer supply here in Thunder Bay.”

A spring 2021 study from Lakehead University paints a picture of just how deadly the drug supply in Thunder Bay has become.

Research also indicates that two-thirds of study subjects who took drugs used substances alone, without any support or mechanism to increase their safety.

In Thunder Bay, there is no “safe drug supply” program whereby eligible people who use drugs receive regular prescribed doses as an alternative to the supply of toxic and illegal drugs.

Ways to Understand What’s in Illegal Drugs

But Juanita Lawson, chief executive of the NorWest Community Health Centre, said the center has purchased a cutting-edge new tool that could improve knowledge about which specific substances – such as benzodiazepines, fentanyl or other synthetic opioids – are in the drugs that people use.

“It’s a new cutting-edge machine coming out, and I think it’s the first in Northwestern Ontario, so we’re really excited to be able to launch it,” Lawson said.

The machine, which is expected to arrive in the coming months, Lawson said, will be based at Path 525, the city’s only safe consumption site since it opened in 2018.

She added that while an increasing number of people have been using Path 525 during the pandemic, NorWest is working to see how it can make the service more easily accessible to community members who don’t use the safe consumption site.

Juanita Lawson, executive director of the NorWest Community Health Centre, says she hopes a new, state-of-the-art drug screening machine will improve the safety of drug users in Thunder Bay. (Logan Turner/CBC)

NorWest previously offered fentanyl test strips, which are used to test injection drugs, pills, and powdered substances to see if there is fentanyl in the substances. But Lawson said people were hesitant about these strips because they required a significant amount of the drug they were using and they didn’t show the full extent of the substances in these drugs or their toxicity.

During the pandemic, Lawson said, NorWest also worked to increase knowledge about drug supply toxicity. This includes promoting the Lifeguard app, which provides real-time information on substances in the city and vital information. NorWest has also partnered with paramedics to help people rescued from overdose connect with harm reduction workers.

Although the leaders of both harm reduction organizations believe that their resources and tools will improve the safety of some substance users, they agree that is not enough.

“We’re not going to make it,” Gauvin said.

There still needs to be significant investments in harm reduction, supportive housing, community supports and poverty reduction to reverse overdose death rates, the Elevate NWO executive director added.