KITCHENER -- There was a record-breaking number of overdose deaths in Waterloo Region in 2020.

The number of deaths increased by 56 per cent over the year before.

Physical distancing, border closures and stay-at-home orders disrupted the illicit drug supply last year. Regional officials called it the perfect storm.

"Leading people to use alone wherever they are able and, as a result, increasing their risk for fatal overdose, because they're not around people who otherwise would be able to save them," said Grace Bermingham, manager of harm reduction with the region.

Bermingham said it resulted in an increasingly potent drug supply.

"Fentanyl of course and the synthetic fentanyls are adding to the unpredictability," he said.

That led to a rise in overdose deaths last year, the highest recorded in the region since local surveillance began. There were 98 overdose-related deaths in 2020, compared to 63 deaths in 2019. That represents a 56 per cent increase.

Substance use issues, including overdoses, are concerns at local shelters. The region launched a new project called the Emergency Shelter and Harm Reduction Integration Initiative to help.

"To examine the existing harm reduction supports that are available within emergency shelter settings, examine some of the challenges experienced by shelter providers," said Chris McEvoy, manager of housing policy and homelessness prevention.

The goal of the project is to gain more data on how to provide support.

Police Chief Bryan Larkin is calling on the federal government to decriminalize possession of hard drugs.

"For those citizens that find themselves in a challenge and dealing with addiction versus incarceration versus arresting versus placing in the correctional system, particularly with young people," he said.

Public health supports the idea of safe supply and consumption and treatment services sites. They're not included in the latest shelter initiative, but regional officials acknowledge they're part of a bigger harm reduction strategy in the community.