ST. THOMAS, ONT. -- Public health officials in Oxford and Elgin counties are concerned over a major spike in emergency department visits related to opioid overdoses.

Southwestern Public Health has issued an Opioid Advisory after hospitals in Woodstock, Ingersoll, Tillsonburg and St. Thomas saw 19 such emergency department visits in the last two weeks of January.

That’s twice as many as they would normally see in a two-week time period.

Health officials say the opioid overdoses may be related to a purple fentanyl, which was the subject of a previous advisory last month.

“It tells us that there might be some potentially toxic opioids circulating in the community,” saya Laura Gibbs, a program manager with Southwestern Public Health.

“We actually heard from some community members that the spike in overdoses might be related to some light purple fentanyl that we heard was circulating in the community back in January.”

The increase is also putting a strain on the emergency rooms of the affected small-town hospitals.

Dr. Jay Taylor, Chief of Emergency at Alexandra Hospital in Ingersoll, says it puts a strain on their resources - but also hits home for staff.

“What it does to the emergency department is it tends to be a problem of younger people coming in being very sick, sometimes in cardiac arrest. It's a big problem for morale and the staff providing care to young people who would be otherwise healthy.”

Perhaps even more concerning are the overdoses that health agencies don't find out about - something more likely to happen in rural areas believes Zorra Township Mayor Marcus Ryan.

“There's a lot of people that don't get to the ER. Not because they don't feel that they should, but again being a rural area it's not always as easy to get to the ER. You could be 15 or 20 minutes away from your ER. So there's a lot of people who are not showing up in those statistics yet they're still damaged, their family's damaged, their community's damaged.”

Health officials urge people to call 911 in the event of an overdose, and administer naloxone, which is available for free at Woodstock and St. Thomas health unit locations, along with some pharmacies.