'COVID is a huge vacuum': Opioid epidemic taking backseat as COVID-19 response puts strain on WECHU resources
As case counts go up in Windsor-Essex, priorities at the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit are shifting to manage the situation, a problem which leadership says is happening at the cost of other important public health issues.
One of those priorities — the opioid epidemic — is being crowded out by COVID, according to WECHU leadership.
“When the public health’s resources are focused disproportionately on one problem, other challenges are not well-addressed,” says Dr. Shankar Nesathurai, the acting medical officer of health at WECHU.
During a media briefing this week, Dr. Nesathurai noted roughly 2,500 Ontarians died last year from an opioid overdose.
On November 18, the local health unit issued an alert after 14 opioid-related overdoses — mostly from fentanyl use — were reported by local hospitals in one week.
“It’s clear that more people are dying of opioid overdoses than motor vehicle crashes,” Dr. Nesathurai said.
Data from the province shows hospitalizations and emergency department visits in Windsor-Essex are spiking sharply in 2021. While local data for overdose deaths is not yet available for 2021, 63 people died from opioid use in 2020.
And while some say opioid overdoses are at the epidemic level, WECHU leadership acknowledges COVID-19 is making it difficult to give it the attention it deserves.
“This has a ripple effect throughout the whole health community,” says WECHU board chair, Gary McNamara. “The health unit’s doing everything they can with the resources they do have. But COVID is a huge vacuum.”
Dr. Nesathurai says the biggest draw on resources from a pandemic management perspective are outbreaks, of which there are 31 in the region, spread out across long-term care homes, workplaces and schools.
If each outbreak involves roughly 30 people, Dr. Nesathurai says WECHU staff need to conduct interviews, contact tracing and then follow ups, which ultimately take hundreds of hours of staff time, per outbreak.
Now multiply that by 31 and you have thousands of hours where staff are pulled away from other pressing public health priorities.
“It is definitely a balancing act for us,” says Nicole Dupuis, the health unit CEO. “When our cases start to rise, it does put pressure on our resources. It definitely puts a resource strain on us.”
That’s not to say work on opioids isn’t happening.
The Windsor Essex Community Opioid and Substance Strategy group is meeting regularly.
WECHU is also in the final stages of setting up a safe-injection site, with a tentative location chosen and an application prepared to go before Windsor City Council in early 2022.
Meantime, other groups, like Pozitive Pathways Community Services (formerly the AIDS Committee of Windsor), are trying to assist people with addictions.
Reaching for the Stars Optimist International is another group trying to have an impact.
“Part of being an Optimist is all about helping the community, it’s about doing the best we can and serving those that are in need,” says Tina Poisson, the group’s vice-president.
It launched a campaign over the summer called ‘You are not alone’ as a way to reduce the stigma of people with opioid addictions and connect them with help.
She says there are resources out there, but many people are having difficulty accessing them because of pandemic-related restrictions, or simply from the stigma of opioid addiction.
”We’ve lost many, many of our community members and that number is actually growing, which is heartbreaking. Because in the end you realize it’s a missed opportunity,” says Poisson. “It’s not just COVID. We need some help.”
“We don’t want anybody else to become a statistic. We don’t want someone to experience more deaths. They count. They matter.”