While hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19 have been trending downward in 2022, another health crisis is worsening.

Across Canada and the Haliburton, Kawartha Lakes, Pine Ridge (HKPR) District Health Unit, opioid overdoses are on the rise, with 41 people dead between April 2020 and March 2021.

Approximately 21 people across Canada died each day in 2021 due to an increasing supply of the toxic drugs.

Community organizations gathered at Head Lake Park Aug. 17 to remember those whose lives have been lost.

“Overdose is often seen as a dirty word that comes with lots of baggage, but this is an unfortunate view that’s far from the truth,” said Natasha James, the Harm Reduction and Crisis Coordinator with the Haliburton and Kawartha Lakes John Howard Society, in a media release ahead of the event.

“People who use drugs do so for many reasons. If an overdose or death occurs due to a poisoned drug supply, as it often does, we cannot blame the victims. Overdoses are a societal scourge that we must all work to address to save lives and end the stigma.”

One person at the event described how overdoses impacted their lives.

“This day means a lot to me, I’ve been there,” they said. “My mother was dealing with prescription drugs from the hospital. It affects me. I had to watch her suffer. Losing her brought me closer to those who have lost their lives and the people who have watched those people suffer.”

The health unit launched an “Early Warning System Opioid Dashboard” in June. Updated weekly, it will give a picture of the number of suspected and confirmed overdoses in the region, including those responded to by local police and paramedic services. It also shows historical data on opioid-related emergency department visits, hospitalizations, and deaths in the region.

According to the dashboard, there were 21 deaths in the HKPR region due to overdose from April 2019 to March 2020, with a further 41 deaths from April 2020 to March 2021.

“In the event of an overdose or death due to a poisoned drug supply, families and friends need compassion and support to grieve their loved one without blame or shame,” said Kate Hall, an HKPR health promoter. Addressing stigma within each of us and reducing the harms of drug use will save lives.”

The health unit offers the following tips to decrease the risk of overdose when consuming drugs:

• Never use alone.

• If you are alone, contact the National Overdose Response Service (NORS) virtual safe consumption at 1-888-668- NORS (6677), or practice the buddy system and call a friend.

• Call 9-1-1 in the event of an overdose.

• Keep a naloxone kit on hand. You can get a naloxone kit at most pharmacies and needle exchange sites.

• Avoid mixing drugs.