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Could a mobile health unit be coming to Durham to fight the opioid crisis?

Motion to start the process heading to regional council Nov. 8

Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health speaks during a forum on opioids hosted by the Region of Durham on Oct. 30. (Photo by Joel Wittnebel)

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

The room was filled with firefighters, police officers, paramedics, addiction advocates and medical professionals. In a word, all the right minds were in the same place to come up with ideas for how to combat the opioid crisis in Durham Region.

And through the information shared during this regionally hosted forum on Oct. 30, it was made clear that things are at crisis-levels.

“It’s not always the person in the back alley, it’s the person on the street down the road from you, it’s your family member…or it may be some of your friends or executive officer down the hallway,” says Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health. “People are seeing how pervasive and ubiquitous this problem is and as a result, I’ve seen a lot of people becoming personally quite involved at times in solutions.”

One of those solutions is set to go before regional council today (Nov. 8), The Oshawa Express has learned, asking for the potential creation of a mobile health unit to help combat this issue.

The motion, set to be brought forward by Councillor Dan Carter, is asking for health and social services departments to determine the cost of operating a “mobile health unit” staffed with outreach workers, addiction counselling, and “medical and health professionals operating in partnership with local health and social service agencies to support and care for at-risk populations across the Region, including those using opioids.”

The motion asks that the costs be brought back for consideration in the 2018 budget.

Speaking in advance of Wednesday’s meeting, Carter says he hopes council realizes that there is local action needed to combat the ongoing crisis.

“We have great agencies out there like the John Howard Society, the AIDS Committee of Durham Region, CAREA Community Health and other organizations that can help us with outreach, addiction workers, (and) street nurses,” he says. “We don’t have street nurses at the Region of Durham, they do, and if we can find the funds not only to be able to mobilize a mobile health unit, but also to support them through the process, I think that that will be step one of many steps that are necessary to address this opioid crisis.”

He recognizes that the idea is a one the region has never considered before and will see blowback from some of his fellow members of council.

“I know this is unique, some are going to say this is a provincial responsibility, and what I want to remind everybody is, this is a local health issue,” he says. “We have an opportunity to truly be able to do something, to be able to pour into these people’s lives and hopefully be part of the solution. If we wait for a federal or provincial solution, my fear is, it’s going to be too late.”

The frightening reality

In 2016, Health Canada reported there were 2,816 opioid-related deaths. This year, there have been 602 between the months of January and August.

Closer to home, Durham police made national headlines last month when they made the largest seizure of carfentanil in this country’s history, seizing 42 kg of the dangerous opioid from a Pickering residence following up on a call for a carbon monoxide alarm.

And while the police note that this equates to approximately 420,000 lethal doses, the fact is, the number of calls for fatal overdoses in the Durham Region have increased by 153 per cent in 2017. And for Durham EMS, they’ve responded to 206 opioid-related overdoses so far this year.

Speaking at the forum, Dr. Williams also put forth an explanation for the sudden emergence of far deadlier drugs like fentanyl and carfentanil that are slowly spilling their way into common street drugs and causing rashes of overdoses. Health Canada estimates that the number of overdoses involving fentanyl-related opioids more than doubled between January and March as compared to the same time period in 2016. Put simply, drug users are chasing the rapid-rise, and sustained high that was offered by modified Oxycontin. However, when the drug was changed to prevent it from being broken down successfully, drug users had to look elsewhere.

For Dr. Williams, municipalities and government need to stop hunting for the band-aid solution.

“A quick fix solution will not be apparent,” he said. “We didn’t get here quickly and we’re not going to get out of here quickly.”

However, the common thread during the meeting was that the key to finding a path forward would not be found by organizations working in silos, but through a collaborative effort.

“It’s important to work on a coordinated response plan,” said Durham Regional Police Chief Paul Martin. “We’re on the right path by joining forces.”

And for Carter, the time to act is now.

“Doing something right now is critical, we’ve already past the critical point, the problem being is, the federal and provincial government take so long to be able to implement something that local action is needed right now.”