MORE people died of overdoses in Wellington Shire at the height of the pandemic last year, with welfare and health experts attributing the increase to pandemic-related stress in the community and the ready availability of new psychoactive drugs and cocaine.
Data from the Coroners’ Court reveals there were four fatal overdoses in Wellington Shire in 2020, an increase from two in 2019.
While the rise appears small, support agencies say any increase is significant.
On average, 2.8 people have fatally overdosed per year in Wellington Shire between 2011 and 2020.
The Healthy Wellington report 2021-2025 reveals high drug use in the shire, with use and possession offences per 1000 population at 5.6, compared to the state average of 5.1.
More Wellington Shire residents also use drug and alcohol welfare services than the majority of Victorians, with 6.8 per cent being drug and alcohol support service clients, compared to the state average of five per cent per thousand population.
A spokesperson for the 58-bed Hope Restart Centre (now run by Odyssey House) in Lucknow, Dr Stefan Gruenert, said rehabilitation resources across Gippsland were “spread thin”, and the pandemic had added another layer of complexity to the problem and exacerbated anxiety in the community.
The centre services the six Gippsland municipalities, but because of the pandemic rehabilitation intake had been reduced and services modified.
Dr Gruenert said Sale Hospital had “limited” detox beds and there was a severe shortage across the region.
“With the increase in need across Gippsland there have also been lockdown-related changes to some services, with less face-to-face contact at times and more video support, which some clients may not find as supportive,” he said.
Dr Gruenert said substance abuse was related to a range of underlying issues, but patterns of abuse had changed during lockdowns, with some illicit drug users switching to substances they were not used to, or turning to alcohol because of drug supply problems.
In response to rising overdose deaths in Gippsland, last year Latrobe Community Health Service, which services Wellington Shire, re-launched an overdose prevention program for people at risk of accidental overdose.
It also runs a needle syringe program aimed at harm minimisation, which plays a role in reducing deaths through building relationships with clients and providing education and support if they are ready for that step.
Roisin Ruddy, who is involved in providing the needle syringe program, said overdose prevention was the “bread and butter” of the program.
Ms Ruddy said the common misconception was that drug overdoses only involved illicit drugs, when in reality people abusing prescription drugs were at significant risk of overdose, as highlighted by the Coroners’ Court report.
The report found pharmaceuticals made the biggest contribution to fatal overdose, contributing to 75.7 per cent of all fatal overdoses in Victoria in 2020.
Ms Ruddy said the stigma surrounding drug use meant people were often reluctant to talk to their local GPs or health services, so the needle syringe program was anonymous and focussed on building non-judgemental relationships with users.
It also provides training on the use of Naloxone, also known as Narcane, which Ms Ruddy called a “frontline of defence” in reducing deaths.
The drug can temporarily reverse opioid overdose, providing time for an overdose sufferer to get to medical help.
“It’s a harm prevention drug that can be administered by anyone, and I believe should be in every first aid cabinet,” Ms Ruddy said.
Victoria-wide, alcohol contributed to 154 fatal overdoses, which is the second highest on record since the Coroners’ Court has been releasing the data in 2011.
Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association executive officer Sam Biondo said he was distressed at the excessive number of fatal overdoses that occurred during 2020 — a year coupled with COVID-19 restrictions.
“It is evident from the data that COVID-19 and the associated restrictions had some impact on the types of substances which contributed to fatal overdose but, overall, the number of deaths is devastating, with 526 Victorians losing their lives to fatal overdose in 2020,” he said.
Mr Biondo said the way people consumed alcohol changed dramatically under COVID-19, with an increase in drinking occurring in the home, often in isolation.
“It is not surprising that alcohol has made such a strong contribution to overdose in 2020, nor is it surprising that 2020 marked the highest rate of alcohol solely contributing to fatal overdose,” he said.
Mr Biondo said the overall focus must be on reducing the toll, which eclipsed the state’s road toll.
That included using a “high targeted approach” to high risk cohorts, such as recently released prisoners, to bring numbers down.
Mr Biondo said while the introduction of SafeScript in 2020 allowed doctors and pharmacists to access a patient’s prescription history for highrisk medications, it often left users without support, as it does not require them to be linked up with drug services, taper them off medication or offer pharmacotherapy.
“Currently, at best, we are treading water,” he said.
Key findings in the Coroners’ Court report include:
• Metropolitan areas account for just under three-quarters of overdose deaths, however the
rate of overdose deaths are consistent across metropolitan Melbourne and regional Victoria;
• Males are twice as likely to die of an overdose than females, and people aged between 35 and 54 are most at risk. However, during 2020, the Coroners’ Court recorded the highest number of women in Victoria aged 25 to 44 fatally overdosing, with 89 fatal overdoses in 2020, up from 60 in 2019;
• Changing trends in overdose deaths include the rise of new psychoactive substances and
the emergence of pregabalin as one of the most frequent contributing drugs in Victorian overdose deaths; and
• An increase in deaths involving cocaine (20 to 27), MDMA (13 to 17) and GHB (7 to 18) in 2020.
The report aims to support open conversations about the harms associated with drugs and alcohol in the community, and to assist in prevention efforts. The court also shares data with state and commonwealth governments to inform their work in reducing drug-harms.
State Coroner Judge John Cain said addressing overdose deaths required an understanding of the complexities around access to and the drivers of drug and alcohol use.
“The release of today’s report gives the public and those working in the alcohol and drug sector access to this important information,” he said.
“Trends in drugs involved in overdose deaths are always changing, which highlights the need for timely data and policies that reduce harms.
“Coroners will continue to investigate drug overdose deaths, seeking prevention opportunities to help address this public health issue.”
The report provides a breakdown by drug class (alcohol, illicit or pharmaceutical), type (alcohol, heroin, cocaine, pharmaceutical opioids, and so on) and local government area, among other information.
A copy of the report can be accessed at coronerscourt.vic.gov.au/victorian-overdose-deaths-2011-2020.
People aged over 24 who live in Gippsland and need help with drug or alcohol addiction can phone the Australian Community Support Organisation (ACSO), on 1300 022 760, which provides specialist forensic alcohol and other drugs intake, assessment and treatment interventions across Victoria. Anyone 24 or under can phone Latrobe Community Health Service directly on 1800 242 696.
For mental health and wellbeing support, the Partners in Wellbeing program provides a free, one-on-one phone support for mental health and wellbeing during the Coronavirus pandemic and beyond on 1300 375 330, Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.
Youth Support and Advocacy Service’s youth alcohol and other drugs outreach service provides alcohol and drug treatment services to vulnerable young people aged 12 to 25 years in Latrobe, Bass Coast and Wellington Shire who require alcohol and drug treatment and support to stabilise, reduce or cease harmful substance use. Phone the information and referral line on 1800 458 685, Monday to Friday, 9am to 8pm. For Narcotics Anonymous Australia, phone 1300 652 820.
Family drug help at the Self Help Addiction Resource Centre (SHARC) can be reached on
1300 660 068. It provides a specialist service to support family members and friends who are concerned about a loved one’s alcohol and drug use.
In an emergency, phone 000.