Ontario saw a 68 percent spike in opioid-related deaths this year, the provincial health minister and coroner announced on Thursday.
The government data shows that 336 opioid overdose deaths occurred in the nation’s most populous province from May to July of this year, a significant jump from 201 deaths during the same time last year.
Opioid-related emergency room visits have also soared 29 percent over the last year, the province said, with more than 2,449 such visits occurring from July to September, compared to 1,896 during the prior three months.
“New data shows the urgent need for action,” the government said in a news release, adding that more fire and police services will be equipped with naloxone, the opioid overdose antidote.
Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins also said he “formally requested” that the federal government allow Ontario to approve and fund overdose prevention sites, although it was unclear if those sites would just be for injection services or include safe spaces for smoking drugs.
Harm reduction worker Zoë Dodd has been on the frontlines of the overdose crisis for years, and has repeatedly called on the province to declare a health emergency over the matter, something they have declined to do.
The new statistics are “devastating,” Dodd told VICE News on Thursday.
“We didn’t have to see a 68% increase, we could have prevented it,” Dodd said. “It’s absolutely shameful.”
“The people in charge have been completely incompetent. We have been begging for meetings, trying to meet with the minister of health, trying to tell them that the overdoses were increasing.”
“We need all hands on deck, and we can’t be treated like we’re some rotten cousins,” Zoë Dodd, harm reduction worker
Dodd and other volunteers opened an unsanctioned overdose prevention tent in Toronto’s Moss Park in August saying they couldn’t wait for the city and province to open its federally approved supervised injection facilities. They were inspired by harm reduction workers in British Columbia who opened their own unsanctioned sites in response to daily overdoses and deaths in Vancouver and surrounding areas.
Dodd is also calling on the government to provide clean drugs for users, such as injectable hydromorphone, and to pursue decriminalizing illicit drugs, something that has worked to curb overdoses and drug-related crimes in Portugal, which took that step in 2001.
“The criminalization of people who use drugs is what keep fueling this crisis, and it will never end unless we change that,” Dodd said.
Michael Parkinson, a drug policy expert at the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council, told VICE News he too would urge the government to consider providing clean drugs for users, and other measures like reducing wait times for addictions treatment. “There are a number of solutions we know will save lives, reduce injuries. But many of those interventions are bottlenecked by the absences of coordination and resources available to local communities,” he said.
“By all indications, this is a health crisis that vastly [outpaces] SARS, H1N1, and any other public health crisis in recent memory.”
‘PUBLIC HEALTH EMERGENCY’
Last month, British Columbia’s coroner announced that more than 1,100 people died of drug overdoses during the first nine months of this year, far surpassing the 981 overdose deaths in the province throughout 2016.
B.C. has been ground zero for the worsening crisis and was the first jurisdiction in Canada to declare a public health emergency over the matter in 2016. It has long tried to convince the federal government to do the same, although it has declined.
Harm reduction and health care workers there have opened a number of unsanctioned overdose prevention sites to help curb deaths by providing users with a safe space to consume their drugs with quick access to overdose-reversing medicine if needed.
The spike in deaths has been largely linked to bootleg fentanyl that’s made its way into the illicit drug supply and users may or may not know that they’re taking the synthetic opioid. It’s to the point where there’s almost no heroin to be found in Vancouver.
Alberta also recently announced that opioid overdose have soared 40 percent over the last year, bringing the death count to 482 from January to September of this year.
Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins pledged $222 million over three years in August to boost harm reduction efforts including expanding access to treatment and addictions services.
“We also need a public health emergency declared,” Dodd said. “We need all hands on deck, and we can’t be treated like we’re some rotten cousins. The government needs to listen to us.”