Stale data threatening opioid fight, front-line workers say

Public health officials in Ottawa have no firm idea how many people have died of opioid overdoses this year, CBC News has learned.

The city doesn’t track drug-related deaths, relying instead on the province to pass along data based on reports it receives from the regional coroner.

Those reports can take months to complete, but Ottawa Public Health (OPH) confirmed it hasn’t seen any new data since December 2016, making the agency’s latest figures on opioid deaths nearly a year out of date.

“Mortality data is always an important part of looking at the bigger picture, but it is only one part,” said Andrew Hendriks, OPH’s director for health protection.

“And so we look at morbidity-related issues [such as] substance use, overdoses, non-fatal overdoses. So you have to piece all that data together.”

The regional supervising coroner for Ottawa told CBC she has submitted the figures for opioid-related deaths that occurred as recently as this summer to the province.

CBC requested that information directly from the coroner, but was told Monday it would take several days to produce.

Only partial data available

The province recently stated there were 336 opioid-related deaths across Ontario from May to July 2017, up from 201 during the same period last year. However the province hasn’t released a geographic breakdown of those 336 deaths, so officials here have no idea of the scope of crisis in their own city.

In turn, Public Health Ontario’s interactive opioid tracker attributes the regional data it collects — including the number of deaths due to opioid overdose — to OPH. The tracker currently has no data for deaths in Ottawa in 2017.

The lack of available information doesn’t appear to bother OPH, however.

“It takes a while for coroners to do their investigations and make sure they provide accurate and high-quality data to us — and that’s really the most important thing,” Hendriks told CBC News on Monday.

“We’re not sitting and waiting on any data point. Our focus and responsibility is being out on the ground, on the front lines, and responding to opioid overdoses in our community.”

Tracking ER visits

The city does track suspected drug-related hospital visits, and estimates more than 2,500 emergency room visits so far in 2017 have been opioid-related.

However front-line workers say few overdoses result in 911 calls because drug users still fear legal repercussions, so those hospital visits could represent the tip of the iceberg.

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