KITCHENER -- Opioid-related overdose deaths have doubled in Waterloo Region during the pandemic, according to a new report.

On Wednesday, the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network (ODPRN) released a report noting a “significant acceleration” of opioid-related deaths in the province following the pandemic-induced state of emergency declaration, with an increase of 79.2 per cent between February 2020 to December 2020.

Waterloo Region saw 82 deaths during the pandemic period identified in the report from March 16 to December 31, 2020, compared to 41 during the same time the year prior.

“As we speak of the numbers of opioid-related deaths, it is done so with a very heavy heart as every number is a person, a person that was loved, and every opioid-related death was preventable,” said Joanna Han, coordinator of the Waterloo Region Integrated Drugs Strategy (WRIDS).

For those who have lived through the grief of losing a loved one to an overdose, the figures are frustrating.

Jaimie Farrell marked the fourth anniversary of her late son’s death on May 16. He died of an accidental overdose when he took a pill laced with fentanyl.

He was just 14 years old.

“Zion was known for his huge, amazing smile,” said Farrell.

The numbers in the latest report are alarming for Farrell, but she says they are not surprising given the added stress the pandemic has brought.

Now, she's advocating for greater counselling supports.

“I am in counselling and if I didn’t have my counselling I’d probably be in a different headspace,” said Farrell, who has maintained her sobriety since her son’s death. “A lot of people don’t have access to counselling. Some people just can’t deal with it; it’s harder, it’s much harder now.”

Safe drug-use advocates like Derek Snider in Cambridge argue stigma is still a key hurdle in reducing overdose deaths and not enough is being done to address it.

“That’s a long, slow process but, it needs to be fully embraced and understood,” Snider said. “A lot of effort needs to be put there and I don’t think very much has been put there so far.”

The ODPRN report shows the Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health Unit as the only jurisdiction in the province to see a decline in overdose deaths, falling from 25 to 24 over the pandemic period.

Year-over-year, Waterloo Region has seen 102 opioid-related overdose deaths in 2020, a more than 50 per cent increase from 2019 when 62 people died of an overdose.


In an email to CTV News, Han outlines a series of initiatives the WRIDS has identified to respond to the growing opioid epidemic:

  • Support and expedite safe supply initiatives. Safe supply is defined as “an approach that focuses on saving lives by using existing pharmaceutical-grade medications as an alternative to highly toxic street drugs for people at risk of overdose.” Reduce stigma around problematic substance use and treat it as the health issue that it is. Everyone deserves healthcare free of stigma.
  • Support the expansion of harm reduction services including Consumption and Treatment Services (CTS). Consumption and Treatment Services (CTS) provide important overdose prevention services for people who use drugs. CTS saves lives by reducing the number of fatal and non-fatal drug overdoses. It also provides a supportive and safe space where people can receive care, free of stigma and connects people with other community support like health and social services.
  • Invest in upstream prevention like housing. Upstream prevention addresses the root causes of problematic substance use, among other issues, and relives the demand for mid and downstream services while providing a positive return on investment.
  • Encourage everyone to get trained in Naloxone and pick up a free kit.

On Thursday, the federal government announced $1.1 million would go towards a safe supply initiative in Guelph over the next two years.

“With this heightened risk for overdose during the pandemic, the Government of Canada is stepping in to support communities such as ours,” said Floyd Longfield, the Liberal MP for Guelph.

Longfield says the funding will allow the Guelph Community Health Centre to offer a safe drug supply to more people, going from 10 individuals to an estimated 150 individuals.

“It meets people where they are,” said Longfield, adding the program will help provide “wraparound” care for those experiencing addiction.

On Wednesday, the Rapid Access Addiction Medicine Clinic opened its second-floor Consumption and Treatment Site at its Kitchener building. The site is meant to offer help to those experiencing problematic substance use.

Snider points to the need for a broader legal change – the decriminalization of drug possession for personal use.

“It takes away some of the stigma,” said Snider. “It also takes away some of the feeling of the need to hide from police. As long as these substances have a criminal element, lives are going to be at risk.”

For Farrell, she hopes more people realize the dangers of opioids and hopes more supports will see fewer sons and daughters lost.

”He was just gorgeous,” said Farrell. “He was just a normal guy. We were just a normal family.”

Han adds the Region is in a public health crisis related to opioids and “cannot overstate” the urgency of the situation.