‘Never use alone’ plea after six Hay River drug-related deaths
At least six people in Hay River have died from drug poisoning in the past year, leading the territory’s chief public health officer to declare a “serious public health issue.”
Speaking at a Tuesday briefing for reporters, Dr Kami Kandola said she and her team had travelled to the South Slave community “to better understand the situation.”
They will launch a public awareness campaign in the town – and are planning a broader program across the territory – to help people understand that illegal drugs may be laced with deadly products they can’t see, and urge residents to never use those drugs alone.
The NWT’s chief coroner, Garth Eggenberger, said fentanyl and carfentanil are finding their way into crack cocaine in particular. Fentanyl is considered around 100 times more potent than heroin, he said, with carfentanil a further 100 times more toxic.
Dr Kandola has issued numerous warnings in recent months about the rise of potentially lethal substance contamination in drugs like cocaine in the Hay River area.
“These poisonings are a complete anomaly for Hay River,” Kandola said on Tuesday. The territory as a whole has not recorded more than three drug-related deaths in any other recent year, but Hay River had six in 2022 alone – five as a direct result of fentanyl or carfentanil and one where the substances were a contributing factor, Kandola added.
All of those who died of drug poisoning in Hay River last year died alone and without the life-saving opioid reversal medication naloxone, Kandola and Eggenberger said.
Kandola urged people to use drugs with someone present who is not using, and who knows how to recognize the signs and symptoms of drug poisoning or an overdose, comparing that to the use of a designated driver when people go out to a bar.
“Never use alone,” she warned Hay River residents, adding that multiple naloxone kits should be nearby in case they are needed. Hay River’s health authority said it was stepping up the distribution and availability of such kits.
Hay River may be a bellwether
Hay River residents have complained of an increase in drug-related problems for months, ranging from crime to health concerns.
A committee led by the Town of Hay River is attempting to address social issues related to drugs, while RCMP have urged residents to form a community watch program in an attempt to head off crime.
Monica Piros, the Hay River health authority’s director of child, family and community wellness, said counsellors and social workers were trying to “offer collaborative and wraparound supports in a way that we’ve never been called to do before.”
She said appetite for a formal detox centre was “re-emerging again in the community” and many residents feel such a facility is needed.
Eggenberger said the coroner’s office was working with Kandola’s team to cut down the time taken for toxicology reports when someone dies, enabling staff to more swiftly understand the circumstances behind each death.
He said that while official figures show six drug poisoning deaths in Hay River over the past year – and one overdose so far in 2023 – residents had suggested there may be more that went unreported.
Hay River may be experiencing a particularly severe problem because it is the gateway to the rest of the territory by road, Kandola suggested, when asked why the town seemed so badly affected compared to others.
She said the progress of fentanyl and carfentanil into the town suggested “we are starting to see the illicit drug supply in the NWT being tainted,” and that could mean the same problems elsewhere in the near future.
“At a high level, we need to roll out a public education awareness program,” Kandola concluded.