Hamilton paramedics who respond to opioid calls will soon not only administer naloxone but also distribute the medication that can temporarily reverse the effects of an overdose.
The focus is on harm reduction, explained paramedic service superintendent David Thompson, who said crews will provide overdose prevention education as well.
“We know naloxone is a life-saving medication. The more of it that’s in the community, the more lives can be saved,” he said.
“It’s about taking the knowledge and experience our paramedics have in responding to opioid overdoses and bringing in harm reduction pieces and taking that out to the public.”
816 suspected overdoses this year
It comes as Hamilton continues to be ravaged by an opioid crisis public health found was only made worse during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Paramedics have responded to 816 suspected opioid overdoses so far this year, according to city statistics that track such incidents. That includes 109 in August alone — the highest number in a single month to date.
That’s compared to 565 such calls (about 47 per month) in 2020. In 2018 that figure was 450.
Paramedics have noted an “upward trend” of overdoses, responding to three a day, the service said.
A report shared by public health in February revealed the precautions needed to stop the COVID-19 virus from spreading meant people who use drugs had reduced access to services.
Social distancing limited “networks and safe spaces” where people could use substances, it added.
“These changes can increase the frequency of individuals using substances alone; which increases the risk of adverse events from substance use.”
Concerns have also been raised about the supply on the street being contaminated, leading to a spike in fatal overdoses.
‘It makes perfect sense’
Dr. Jill Wiwcharuk, a member of Hamilton Social Medicine Response Team (Hamsmart), said even the rising numbers the city has recorded represent only a fraction of the overdoses that happen in the community as the majority are responded to by friends, family and other peers.
The doctor applauded the initiative from paramedics.
“It makes perfect sense to me,” said Wiwcharuk.
“I think any paramedic service is in a unique position to be distributing and educating people on naloxone where it’s most-needed.”
Paramedics have long carried and administered naloxone, but they began training to distribute kits and share awareness and prevention methods in October of this year.
Now 418 Hamilton paramedics are prepared to begin providing those services starting on Dec. 7.
“This program will further enhance the ability of paramedics to help those most at risk of overdose within our community,” said paramedic chief Michael Sanderson in a media release.
Michelle Baird, director of epidemiology, wellness and communicable disease control for the city, also cheered the service for taking on the new role, describing their contribution to reducing opioid overdoses “invaluable.”
Wiwcharuk said Hamilton’s paramedics have a “proven track record” of support for harm reduction efforts in the city and urged other first responders, including police, to follow their lead and give out naloxone.
“Whoever has frontline contact with people affected by this crisis should be is a position to help solve it.”