As the number of new daily COVID-19 cases in Toronto keeps dropping, the death toll from another ongoing public health crisis — opioid overdoses — continues to rise.
In April, 25 fatal suspected opioid overdose calls were reported by Toronto paramedics, marking the highest suspected number of dead since September 2017. In May, another 25 suspected deaths were reported.
Advocates warn the likely total for June, which won’t be released by the city until next month, could be similarly high.
“The last few months have marked the worst period of the current overdose crisis,” said Jason Altenberg, CEO of the South Riverdale Community Health Centre, which provides harm reduction services in Toronto’s east end.
And, he added, there’s a clear connection between the pandemic and this spike in overdose deaths.
Public health messaging to battle COVID-19 has called on residents to stay apart, likely causing more people to use drugs alone — without any support nearby in case of an overdose — as local harm reduction services shuttered or reduced capacity, Altenberg said.
He added the drug supply itself grew “more potent, more toxic, more unpredictable” as global supply chains broke down, leading to potentially-deadly combinations of drugs circulating in the community.
“The street drug supply remains not only extremely toxic, but more toxic than before the pandemic,” Altenberg stressed.
Drug users ‘extremely scared’
Akia Munga, a harm reduction worker based in Toronto who uses they/them pronouns, said people are “extremely scared” since the combination of a tainted supply and increased solo drug use is proving so deadly.
“Folks use off site. Folks use in alleys. Folks use in the park,” they said. “Folks use in places that are accessible and comfortable at the time — but we’re not there.”
One woman Munga knew personally, who typically used an east-end safe consumption site where staff would monitor her drug use to prevent an overdose, died within the last couple of months. Every time it happens, they added, it’s “tragic.”
Ontario’s cap on overdose prevention sites and a lack of movement on providing safe, government-supplied drugs are also challenges when it comes to keeping people alive, said Munga, who is also a drug user.
It’s an issue beyond Toronto as well.
According to the Ontario coroner’s office, there was roughly a 25 per cent increase in overdose deaths from March to May 2020 compared with the same three-month period last year.
In British Columbia, 170 people died of overdoses in May, marking a grim new record for the province.
With no end in sight to either health crisis — the COVID-19 pandemic and opioid overdoses — city officials say more action is needed before the death toll climbs even higher in the months ahead.
A recent report from Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa, later approved by the city’s board of health, calls on the provincial government to help boost harm reduction programs, including implementing safe supply sites that would provide drugs directly.
De Villa is also asking the federal government to increase funding for a “spectrum of safer supply initiatives.”
Province not considering safe supply sites
A spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of Health told CBC Toronto the province is not “currently considering” opening safe supply sites, but will continue funding the 16 consumption sites that already exist.
Coun. Joe Cressy, Toronto’s board of health chair, said conversations are now quite “advanced” between local organizations and the federal government regarding opening sites for safe supply, though no official funding announcement has been released.
Federal health officials also did not provide comment in response to CBC Toronto’s inquiries by publishing time.
“It is a serious public health emergency taking place right now, and our decision-makers seem to be ignoring it,” Cressy said.
“Frankly, other levels of government are focused completely on COVID — at the expense of the opioid crisis.”