Ottawa police responded to five opioid overdoses within two hours in the downtown area on Tuesday evening.
All five people were revived. Police declined to say where the overdoses happened, but issued a warning: “There is no way to be sure what is in drugs obtained anywhere but a pharmacy. If you suspect someone is experiencing an overdose, call 911.”
Tuesday night offers a snapshot of an opioid epidemic that continues to rage alongside the COVID-19 pandemic.
Five overdoses within two hours is perhaps unusual for police in such as short time frame. But Ottawa Inner City Health, which provides healthcare to chronically homeless people, had seven overdoses on Tuesday. None of the overdoses was fatal and none involved police, executive director Wendy Muckle said.
“It’s the end of the month. Typically, we see a lot of overdoses,” she said. “I don’t want to minimize it. It’s a terrible situation, but it’s not unusual. It’s a never-ending river of grief.”
There was a surge in opioid deaths in Ottawa following the first lockdown of the pandemic, Ottawa Public Health data showed.
In the first quarter of 2020, there were 18 opioid overdose deaths. That jumped to 31 deaths in the second quarter, 38 in the third quarter and 37 in the fourth quarter.
This year, there were 35 opioid-related deaths in the first quarter and 34 deaths in the second quarter, the most recent figures available.
“It has certainly gotten worse during the pandemic,” Muckle said. “People with addictions are seeing a disconnection from the positive things in life.”
Meanwhile, opioid-related overdose emergency department visits increased about 60 per cent in 2020 compared to 2019. High numbers of emergency department visits due to opioid overdoses continued into 2021.
In 2020, 87 per cent of opioid overdose fatalities were due to fentanyl or fentanyl analogs.
Illicit fentanyl is often made as a powder and mixed with other drugs such as heroin, cocaine or crack and is pressed into pills made to look like other prescription pills or other pills, including speed, Ottawa Public Health said.
“Illicit fentanyl is much more toxic than other pharmaceutical-grade opioids. There is no easy way to know if fentanyl is in the drugs you are using. You can’t see it, smell it or taste it. Any drug can be cut with fentanyl. Even a very small amount can cause an overdose.”
The Ottawa Paramedic Service has also noted an increase in overdose calls requiring Naloxone, a medication used to block the effects of opioids.
Between January and May 15, paramedics responded to 98 calls requiring Naloxone, a 72-per-cent increase, compared to the same five-month period in 2020, when paramedics responded to 57 overdose calls for a Naloxone administration.
As of September, Ottawa Police Service responded to 240 calls for service involving overdoses, with 26 calls requiring Naloxone.
Both Muckle and Ottawa Public Health point out that overdose statistics actually under-represent the scope of the problem — not all of those who overdose are seen in a hospital.
“Most people who use drugs prefer not to use 911,” Muckle said.