Province digs in amid calls for OD stats release
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The Stefanson government is holding firm on its refusal to release 2022 fatal overdose statistics, ignoring calls in the legislature from the NDP to do so.
At the same time, newly released data show the extent of the demand for harm reduction services in Winnipeg.
Data provided by Sunshine House to the Free Press show there were more than 4,500 visits to the organization’s months-old mobile overdose prevention site between November and February.
Of those visits, 885 included people using drugs, knowing they will be revived with naloxone if they overdose. Other visits included people picking up harm reduction supplies (such as clean needles and naloxone) or accessing education, including naloxone training and other supports for addictions.
“The numbers we’ve seen at the (mobile site) over its first four full months of operation shows that there’s a need for these services,” said Levi Foy, executive director of Sunshine House. “We want to be an approachable, peer-run, consistent presence in the community, and I think we’re achieving that.”
Meanwhile, the province is digging in its heels on its refusal to release the latest overdose death data.
During question period Monday, Bernadette Smith, NDP critic for mental health and community wellness, demanded the Tory premier release the 2022 numbers and apologize to Manitobans for withholding them.
“The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner used to provide this data, but now this premier is telling them that they can’t. That’s shameful. That’s not being transparent,” Smith said.
“Why are they hiding this data? Will the premier do the right thing and release the data for 2022 overdoses today?”
The matter came to light last week, when the Free Press requested 2022 data from the province. Previously, the monthly statistics were provided by the chief medical examiner, but the office is now directing requests to the province. The province, via a spokesperson, said the province won’t be releasing preliminary data and directed the Free Press to statistics from 2021.
Minister of Mental Health and Community Wellness Janice Morley-Lecomte responded to Smith’s questions by expressing condolences for families whose loved ones have died due to drugs. She said the public can find data about overdoses in the province’s online substance-related harms surveillance report, launched in December 2022.
“We’re hoping that these numbers come out in early spring,” Morley-Lecomte added, though she didn’t clarify which numbers.
Smith pressed on, asking: “Why is it that every other province is able to provide those numbers in a timely manner?”
“It’s clear that the PCs… don’t want to release the number of overdose deaths, as they failed to address the addictions crisis,” Smith said.
Overdose deaths have risen under the Progressive Conservatives (who formed government in 2016), she said — to 424 in 2021, up from 199 in 2019.
Sunshine House’s mobile service remains the closest thing Winnipeg has to a supervised consumption site.
The RV, which runs out of various spots around the city, offers people a comfortable space to use their own drugs, access harm reduction supplies and find support services. It operates under a Health Canada exemption.
The PC government has long resisted calls for formal brick-and-mortar supervised drug consumption sites in Manitoba. It says it is focused on recovery and treatment, but harm reduction advocates say supervised sites are also desperately needed to tackle the fallout of a deadly toxic drug crisis.
The PCs were also opposed to the launch of the mobile overdose prevention site last year.
Amid demand for its services, Sunshine House said it is now working on gaining a better understanding of what drugs are on the street. It recently acquired a high-tech, $65,000 drug-testing machine, after months of fundraising.
“Having that knowledge and autonomy will change the way some people use, and we’ll be able to spread that information widely through our drug alerts,” Foy said. “This is just the beginning.”
Katrina Clarke is an investigative reporter with the Winnipeg Free Press.