Fatal opioid overdoses decline in region, but deadly carfentanil now prevalent
Fatal opioid overdoses in Waterloo Region are trending down compared to this time last year, but it's uncertain if the trend will continue as the much deadlier drug carfentanil grows in popularity.
A review presented to Waterloo Regional Police Service Board members on Wednesday indicates there were 13 fatal opioid related overdoses in the first four months of this year, compared to more than 21 for the same period in 2017.
Statistics for 2017 may actually be higher, as no reports are available for January last year.
The decline is cautiously regarded as a positive result in an ongoing campaign to raise awareness about the risks of using deadly bootleg drugs, supported by harm reduction education measures in a bid to prevent deaths.
The downward trend has also been attributed to the increased availability of the life-saving antidote, naloxone, enabling private citizens to revive individuals overdosing on opioids.
In presenting his report, Insp. Dave Bishop of intelligence services, said that while fatal overdose numbers are down, police aren’t in any position yet to say they’re winning the war in the ongoing opioid crisis.
“One of the things we have seen, which is very concerning for us, is that carfentanil is now
becoming prevalent,” he told the board.
Carfentanil, a drug designed to tranquilize large animals like elephants and 100 times more potent than fentanyl, is regularly showing up as a confirmed ingredient in the deadly mixes of opioids seized by police.
A recent warning was issued following a seizure of a carfentanil-laced drug dubbed purple playdough because of its soft, doughy appearance and texture.
What worries emergency responders, including police and paramedics, is that people using opioids have no way to know what they’re taking, and are more likely to consume quantities of carfentanil, increasing overdose risks.
Those increased risks present consequences in attempts to save lives.
“Officers and paramedics are finding that reviving overdose patients now sometimes requires multiple doses of naloxone, and increased medical care,” Bishop said in his report.
Since regional police started carrying naloxone — two doses per kit — they have administered the antidote 33 times, 11 of those times this year.
While police remain cautiously optimistic about reports showing downward trends in drug overdoses and fatal overdoses, police leaders acknowledge statistics may not necessarily mirror reality.
Many overdoses — not including fatal incidents — are often not reported to police due to the availability of naloxone and education discouraging individuals from using alone. Overdose victims are often revived by friends without even calling police or seeking further medical attention.
Of the overdoses reported, police are finding the most aren’t occurring in the core downtown areas as some might expect.
“Our overdose deaths continue to be primarily residential, and in suburban areas,” explained Bishop.
Those using in residential areas are more at risk because they’re more likely to be using alone, explained Chief Bryan Larkin.
Those using in core downtown areas are more likely to have access to safety measures like naloxone or be in groups with individuals to revive them, he said.
“We know that using with another person, having naloxone available and or other safety measures does result in saving lives,” he told reporters after the board meeting.
"I think it’s very important. We need to continue to reinforce that as we move toward the exploration of potential supervised injection sites.”