‘We’ve been there before:’ National phone line launches to prevent overdose deaths

‘We’ve been there before:’ National phone line launches to prevent overdose deaths

A new Canada-wide phone line aims to prevent deadly overdoses by connecting anyone who is alone and using drugs with peers who can quickly call for help if things take a bad turn.

“People who have experience with overdose, or peers, have kind of a gut feeling or gut sense about what’s happening and what’s going wrong, because we’ve been there before,” said Rebecca Morris-Millerwho founded Grenfell Ministries in Hamilton after years of drug use, homelessness and run-ins with the law.

The National Overdose Response Service, or NORS, is a collaboration between Grenfell Ministries and Brave Technology Co-op, which operates in Vancouver and Columbus, Ohio.

Anyone in Canada using a potentially deadly substance can dial a toll-free number and have someone standing by to call for help if needed. A volunteer checks in periodically and calls 911 if there’s no response.

The caller can also provide contact information in advance for someone nearby with a naloxone kit — a helpful option to reverse an overdose in remote areas with long emergency response times.

The phone line can be a connection to treatment and social services without pressure or judgment, said Morris-Miller.

“You have to meet people where they are at and let them make their journey towards you.”

Grenfell Ministries runs peer support and outreach groups and, in February, set up an overdose response phone line serving Ontario.

NORS is starting out with 16 peer volunteers and is looking for more. A peer can be an active or recovering drug user or a front-line worker.

The initiative comes at a time when overdose deaths are spiking.

A recent federal report says there were 1,628 apparent opioid toxicity deaths between April and June of this year, when the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

That’s a 58 per cent increase from the first three months of the year and the highest quarterly count since Ottawa first started keeping track in 2016.

“We have this awful pandemic going on and people are trying to access services, but a lot of places got closed,” said Grenfell executive director Kim Ritchie.

“The border shut down, so the drugs got cut with wilder and wilder stuff, causing more death.”

Ritchie said everyone involved in the project had a “driving passion” to do something.

“You can’t treat an addict that’s already dead,” she said.

“I’ve buried so many.”

Oona Krieg, Brave’s chief operating officer, said NORS can reach people without cellular data or Wi-Fi.

Brave has several technological offerings to keep drug users safe — all co-designed by people with personal experience — including a mobile app linking drug users with remote supervision.

Other products include buttons that can summon help and sensors that can detect if there is someone motionless inside a washroom or other enclosed space.

“It just seemed like another tool to put in the proverbial tool belt,” Krieg said of NORS. “We need a multitude of solutions. This problem is so incredibly complex, incredibly multi-faceted.”

Dr. Monty Ghosh, a physician who treats vulnerable patients in Edmonton and Calgary, said he learned about what Brave and Grenfell Ministries were doing separately and suggested they link up on a national scale.

He worked on getting Health Canada’s blessing and will evaluate how effective it is.

In 2016, a telehealth patient in northwestern Alberta told Ghosh that he would use drugs with a friend in Edmonton over FaceTime on their cellphones, so each could get help if the other overdosed.

“The patient had a brilliant idea that I felt needed to be implemented,” said Ghosh. Alberta had a remote supervision pilot in the works, but the United Conservative government paused it earlier this year.

Provincial data shows the vast majority of overdose deaths happen in homes and outside downtown cores.

Ghosh added that supervised consumption sites are effective at preventing overdose deaths within a 500-metre radius. NORS is meant to reach drug users who live too far beyond that or would be reluctant to visit a site because of the stigma.

“It really is a life-saving intervention at its core.”

National Overdose Response Service: 1-888-688-NORS (6677)

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 20, 2020

Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press

opioid addiction

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. A British Columbia company that feeds food waste to insects to produce pet food has received $6 million from the federal government for it’s new state-of-the-art plant just north of Calgary. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle
B.C. company turning fly larvae into pet food gets $6M in federal funds

Fly larvae fed a mixture of food waste and agricultural byproducts

FortisBC is reporting record electricity usage as temperatures spike. (File photo
AltaLink seeks to refund extra $350 million over three years to Alberta customers

AltaLink submits proposal to Alberta Utilities Commission

Annamie Paul, leader of The Green Party of Canada and byelection candidate for the Toronto Centre riding, walks back to her car after greeting supporters on election night, October 26, 2020. Paul has spent most of the past 10 months holed up in her apartment, just like you. But that stationary, pandemic-induced state belies the sharp pivot her party is making as it manoeuvres to break the tether of a one-issue party and reframe itself as a fresh inheritor of Canada’s social justice tradition. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
Annamie Paul charts new course for Green party — through crowded waters

Paul’s calls for guaranteed livable income, universal pharmacare and child care, and free post-secondary education

ATB Economics released new vehicle sales stats for November. (Contributed by ATB Economics)
2020 will be remembered as tough year for new car and truck dealers in Alberta

ATB Economics releases new vehicle sales stats for November

Justin Kripps of Summerland and his team have competed in Olympic action and World Cup competitions in bobsleigh. (Jason Ransom-Canadian Olympic Comittee).
QUIZ: Are you ready for some winter sports?

It’s cold outside, but there are plenty of recreation opportunities in the winter months

Opinion
Opinion: A trend that should keep Freeland up at night

With a raft of fresh economic forecasts and a promised $100 billion… Continue reading

A yard in Gascoyne, ND., which has hundreds of kilometres of pipes stacked inside it that are supposed to go into the Keystone XL pipeline, should it ever be approved are shown on April 22, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Alex Panetta
TC Energy decarbonization response to Keystone setback unlikely to sway ESG investors

Plans announced for the Keystone XL project to achieve net zero emissions

President-elect Joe Biden waves to reporters as walks out of The Queen theater Monday, Jan. 18, 2021, in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Joe Biden to propose 8-year citizenship path for immigrants

An estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. without legal status

This screen grab from a Zoom call shows new New York Mets general manager Jared Porter Monday, Dec. 14, 2020. (Zoom via AP)
Report: Mets GM admits explicit texts to female reporter

Another embarrassing development for the Mets

A man wearing a protective mask to help curb the spread of the coronavirus walks near banners of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. The Tokyo Olympics are to open in six months on July 23. Interestingly, Tokyo organizers have no public program planned to mark the milestone. There is too much uncertainty for that right now. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
Tokyo Olympics Q&A: 6 months out and murmurs of cancellation

Instead of a countdown celebration, the focus is on COVID-19

Fashion mogul Peter Nygard is shown during a bail hearing in Winnipeg on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in this courtroom sketch. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tadens Mpwene - POOL
Canadian fashion mogul seeking bail on U.S. charges of sex trafficking, racketeering

Lawyers for the Attorney General of Canada say Nygard has a history of not showing up to court

Montreal Canadiens down Edmonton Oilers 3-1, sweep series

Montreal Canadiens down Edmonton Oilers 3-1, sweep series

Most Read