Twenty-seven Torontonians died of drug overdoses in July, a dismal monthly record for the city that far exceeded the number of Torontonians killed by COVID-19 during the same period.
Coun. Joe Cressy, the city’s public health president, said on Tuesday that the Ontario government must immediately start implementing recommendations from Toronto’s leading public health physician to end the surge in preventable deaths .
“What we see in Toronto reflects what we see across Canada,” Cressy (Ward 10 Spadina-Fort York) said in cities like Vancouver and Calgary.
“The combination of reduced (health) services due to COVID-19, coupled with an extremely contaminated drug supply, with all the changes in border activities, has resulted in an increasingly dangerous drug supply,” did he declare.
“The continued stigma associated with drug use, where we treat it not as a health issue but as a criminal justice issue, results in a reduction in services for those who need them.
“It is time for higher levels of government to treat the overdose crisis as a health problem, fund programs and save lives, instead of treating it as a toxic problem.
Toronto’s overdose death toll in July more than doubled the total of 13. Paramedics in Toronto witnessed 25 suspected overdose-related deaths in May and also in April. From March to July, those deaths jumped 85% during this period in 2019.
COVID-19 killed 18 Torontonians in July, according to Toronto Public Health.
In June, Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, called on the governments of Ontario and the federal government to take specific action to contain an opioid crisis that has killed 14,000 Canadians in the past four years.
They include: lifting the Doug Ford government’s “arbitrary” cap on 21 safe injection sites in Ontario; fully fund treatment and harm reduction services for people who use drugs; and expanding access to naloxone, which can reverse overdoses.
De Villa also wants drug use to be decriminalized and to help provide users with a “safer supply,” including legal and regulated opioids on prescription as part of treatment.
Cressy hopes the federal Liberal government will allow users in Toronto to access hydromorphone, a synthetic opioid available in British Columbia, and that the Progressive Conservative government of Ontario will add it to the provincial benefit plan.
But so far the Ford government has ignored all of De Villa’s recommendations, Cressy said, “and the province, frankly, has taken steps backwards rather than forward in overdose prevention in recent years. .
Ford in 2018, months before his election as prime minister, said he was personally “strongly opposed” to supervised injection sites and that the focus should be on rehabilitation. Her late brother, Rob Ford, successfully received drug and alcohol treatment at a private clinic in Muskoka while he was mayor of Toronto in 2014.
Zoë Dodd, a harm reduction worker from Toronto, said overdose deaths started to rise in January, before COVID-19 significantly hit the city. The subsequent suspension of health services and the relocation of some homeless people to hotels, far from their drug supply, aggravated the crisis, she said.
Governments “need to take this crisis as seriously as they do with COVID,” said Dodd, who helps run one of two safe injection sites in Toronto that receive no provincial funding, unlike seven others in the city.
“In Ontario, it all came to a halt as soon as the Ford government took office,” she said. “All levels of government need to work together, which they have never done, otherwise the carnage is lasting and will continue.”
Get more Toronto politics delivered to your inbox
Take a look at what’s really going on at Town Hall, and find out what it means to you, in our weekly Hall Monitor email newsletter.
The Ontario Ministry of Health “remains committed to tackling the opioid crisis and helping people with opioid use disorder get the help they need,” said Alexandra Hilkene, spokesperson for Minister of Health Christine Elliott.
In an email, Hilkene said the ministry “is actively monitoring the impact of COVID-19 on people who use opioids and is taking action to support people who use opioids during COVID-19”, including support for existing secure injection sites as well as programs to distribute naloxone and facilitate needle exchanges.
Safe injection sites have changed their practices to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection, Hilkene added, including screening, physical distancing and increased cleaning.