Spike in overdose deaths prompts medical officer to call for federal, provincial help

Amid a spike in suspected opioid overdose deaths in April, Toronto’s board of health is expected to call on the federal and provincial governments next week to take steps to ensure there is a safer supply of drugs in the city.

The board will consider at its next meeting on Monday a report from Dr. Eileen de Villa, the city’s medical officer of health, that asks the federal health minister to increase funding for a “spectrum of safer supply initiatives.”

The report asks the provincial health minister to support the implementation of safe supply “managed opioid” programs.

De Villa is also urging the province to remove the cap of 21 supervised injection sites permitted in Ontario.

According to the report, Toronto paramedics responded to 25 suspected opioid overdose deaths in April, the highest number since September 2017. And it says in the first four months of this year, paramedics responded to 1,307 suspected opioid overdose calls, including 71 deaths.

“The ongoing opioid poisoning crisis in Toronto and across Canada has intensified and been further compounded by the COVID-19 global pandemic,” the report says.

“These dual public health crises are having significant impacts on people who use drugs in our community as well as their families, friends and loved ones. Services that people rely on, many of them lifesaving, have closed or significantly reduced their service hours and/or capacity.”

As well, de Villa calls on the federal government to decriminalize illegal drugs for the duration of the pandemic. The requests are part of what the board calls its Toronto Overdose Action Plan.

Coun. Joe Cressy, who represents Ward 10, Spadina-Fort York and is also chair of the board of health, said in a telephone interview with CBC Toronto on Tuesday that he supports de Villa’s requests.

Coun. Joe Cressy says: ‘We have a deadly overdose crisis on our streets today. The combination of decreased harm reduction services during COVID-19, coupled with an exceptionally tainted drug supply, is killing people. These are preventable deaths.’ (Lauren Pelley/CBC)

“Toronto’s board of health has previously taken the position that we fundamentally need a new approach when it comes to drug use in protecting the health of people who use drugs. We previously took the position in support of decriminalization because clearly, the old approach, that of prohibition, has not worked. In fact, it has resulted in more harm,” Cressy said.

“And so, a public health approach: Is it complicated? Absolutely. Is evidence informed and based on best practices? It is. And it will reduce harm.”

Cressy said the “opioid poisoning crisis,” as he calls it, has gotten worse during the pandemic because there is less access to supervised injection sites, to drugs themselves, and the drug supply on the streets is tainted.

Tainted drug supply blamed in part on border closure

The tainted supply, he said, is partly due to the closure of the border between the U.S. and Canada because there are fewer drugs available.

“We have a deadly overdose crisis on our streets today. The combination of decreased harm reduction services during COVID-19, coupled with an exceptionally tainted drug supply, is killing people. These are preventable deaths,” he said.

The federal government is funding a variety of safe supply programs across the country and the board of health has applied for one, he said.

“The practice of safe supply, as a form of treatment, is a proven health care model. It’s one that is actively in place throughout the country funded by the federal government. We are seeking to enhance our overdose prevention services,” Cressy said.

De Villa told reporters at a city hall briefing on Monday that the pandemic has led to a cut in harm reduction services.

“Other than drug policy, one of the best ways to protect people from overdose is providing for close proximity to others and not using alone,” de Villa said.

“Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic and the measures that were implemented to promote physical distancing, which was necessary to contain the spread of COVID-19, have forced harm reduction and other services that people rely upon to significantly reduce their service offerings or their service hours.”


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