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Pandemic sparked a 'tragic explosion of mortality from opioids'

'I would say that the opioid tragedy was its own pandemic,' says Dr. Charles Gardner, who said deaths from opioids was close to number of pandemic deaths in region
2020-03-12 Charles Gardner
Dr. Charles Gardner, medical officer of health with the Simcoe Muskoka District Health, made a presentation to Orillia city councillors on Monday. File Photo

As the opioid crisis persists and the COVID-19 pandemic wanes, the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit provided a regional public health update to city council Monday.

Medical Officer of Health Dr. Charles Gardner, along with health unit board members, were at the meeting to discuss the region’s state of affairs and field questions from council members.

After administering over 1.5 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines in the region, Gardner said the province, along with Simcoe Muskoka, has moved beyond the worst stage of the pandemic, though it still persists.

“Although we're past the acute phase of the pandemic, we still continue to have a significant amount of transmission and a significant amount of death occurring, between two to 11 deaths a week,” Gardner said Monday. “(These are) overwhelmingly in those who are 70 to 80 years of age and older, but still continuing.”

To date, more than 600 people have died after contracting COVID-19 in Simcoe Muskoka, which is “orders of magnitude” greater than influenza deaths over a similar period, Gardner said. 

Though the province has seen 1.6 million cases and over 16,000 deaths, Gardner said things are looking more positive than in years past.

“We are now recovering, I would say, … and I think we're making much better headway now this year than previous,” he said, noting over 80 per cent of the region’s population is now immunized, including 99 per cent of those over 80 years of age.

As the pandemic eases, Gardner said some of the other health unit’s programs, such as routine in-school immunizations, are beginning to recover, too.

About 70 per cent of the health unit’s staff were deployed in response to the pandemic, he said.

“They had to carry a tremendous burden through all of this, (and were) redeployed and doing work that they normally weren't doing, and forgoing vacation and putting in extra hours for three years,” Gardner said.

“(There was) extreme demand on our staff, (and a) need for the recovery and the need for our programs to recover, so I'm happy to see that we're well underway with that now, but some of it will take time.”

As a public health institution, the health unit plays a role in preventing and mitigating various diseases, in all scales and forms, and in promoting public health and awareness among the numerous people it serves.

“The pandemic was a tremendous challenge to us and … we had to curtail most of that (programming) for most of the past three years, and we're only now getting back into putting back into place all of that programming,” Gardner said.

Along with death caused by the pandemic, however, Gardner made note of the substantial rise in opioid deaths over the same timeframe.

“I would say that the opioid tragedy was its own pandemic,” he said. “The number of people that died here through the pandemic from opioids was less than COVID-19, but not by much, and actually it was a similar number of people.”

Gardner said regional opioid deaths spiked by 70 per cent over the pandemic; that number has fallen recently. 

“It's reduced by about 30 per cent from the peak, and still well above what it had been before the pandemic, so that's something we prioritize,” he said. “(Through) the pandemic, as best we could, (we) didn't stop doing that work, but the dynamics of what was happening led to that kind of tragic explosion of mortality from opioids.”

Garder also highlighted the city’s annual contribution to the health unit, as well, which has climbed from $444,350 in 2021 to $486,886 in 2023.

Despite the rise in funding, he said public health funding remains tight.

“Although you've had significant (funding) increases of 5 per cent and 4 per cent, if you look at the per capita costs it's not actually kept pace with population growth,” he said. “I would say that public health is very lean, and we've been, in fact, mostly frozen in terms of the base from the province for the past decade.”

Following the presentation, members of council posed questions to Gardner.

After thanking the health unit for its work, Coun. Ralph Cipolla raised concerns about the spread of the avian flu, and asked for Gardner’s input on the city’s newly formed opioid working group to address the crisis locally.

Gardner said it’s wise for municipalities to take action on the crisis, but said it’s a multifaceted and complex issue to address.

“It's an extremely difficult topic and I do think that local municipalities need to do what they can to take advantage of that kind of approach and look, locally, what else you can add,” he said. 

“In the City of Barrie, we're seeking to put in place a consumption and treatment services location, but that's required the province’s approval and funding, so despite having had the plan in place and a submission, federally, for an exemption that would allow for it, we're still awaiting approval from the province and funding from the province to be able to proceed with that," Gardner said.

On the avian flu, Gardner said the disease occasionally transmits to mammals, noting it has not arrived in the area yet.

“There has been a need to cull … domestic flocks, commercial flocks that have been infected with avian influenza in York Region, (and) some other regions south of here … have detected it locally,” he said. “We haven't yet detected avian influenza in the bird population here  … it could still be here, but it has not yet been detected. 

“At this point, it's a matter of surveillance and general public awareness.”

Coun. Jay Fallis questioned what work the health unit is doing to continue addressing the pandemic, and he also asked what is being done to prepare for future pandemics.

With the vast majority of public health measures lifted, Gardner stressed the importance of getting vaccinated.

“All of those public health measures have been lifted, with the exception of infection control practices in health-care facilities and long-term care facilities, and even that has potential for some relaxation to happen,” he said.

“It's really important that people keep up with the immunizations, and I think there's fatigue about that because we're (at) like round five, round six, for people to be up to date," Gardner stressed.

“We do note that the really important thing is (to) get the first two, at least,” he said. “(It’s) a huge difference between having none and having those first two doses.”

Regarding future pandemics, Gardner said time will tell if health professionals are given the resources they need to handle them.

“The chief medical officer of health just put out a report saying we can't just … forget about this –  there's this cycle of neglect or falling off in preparedness, and falling off in funding, and then vulnerability,” he said. 

“The whole of my career, I've been preparing for the big pandemic and it came,” he said. “We know that they come on a regular basis. There will be future pandemics – some mild, some severe – (and) I think time will tell whether or not we get the kind of support we need to be fully prepared.”