The federal government is set to announce funding for two new safe drug supply programs in Toronto — a move that comes amid a worsening opioid overdose crisis that has left dozens dead across the city this year alone.
The Emergency Safer Supply Program and the Downtown East Collaborative Emergency Safer Supply Program are "innovative new harm reduction approaches" based in Toronto, according to a news release from federal officials on Wednesday.
The two sites, operated by community organizations Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre and South Riverdale Community Health Centre, are providing clients with reliable pharmaceutical opioids as an alternative to potentially-deadly illegal drugs, the release continues.
So far, 2020 has been a particularly deadly stretch for opioid-related deaths in Toronto.
More than 130 suspected overdose deaths have been reported so far this year by Toronto Public Health, including 27 in July alone — marking a grim new record since the city first began tracking this data.
"We are definitely concerned about the toxic drug supply and increasing overdoses that we've seen in Toronto," the city's associate medical officer of health Dr. Vinita Dubey said on Wednesday, noting her team has been pushing for more initiatives to curb the crisis.
In response to questions from CBC News, Mayor John Tory called the deaths "tragic" and "avoidable," and said he welcomed the anticipated federal announcement regarding safe supply sites.
"But there's much more to be done," he added, suggesting more treatment programs and other supports for drug users are needed from all levels of government.
Drug supply 'more toxic' during pandemic
Earlier this year, Toronto's Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa publicly asked the federal government to increase funding for a "spectrum of safer supply initiatives" alongside other measures to mitigate the opioid crisis that has claimed thousands of lives across the country.
Jason Altenberg, CEO of the South Riverdale Community Health Centre, which provides harm reduction services in Toronto's east end, previously told CBC News there's a clear connection between the COVID-19 pandemic and the spike in overdose deaths.
The drug supply grew "more potent, more toxic, more unpredictable" as global supply chains broke down, leading to potentially-deadly combinations of drugs circulating in the community, he said in June.
The pandemic also saw more people using drugs alone, as local harm reduction services shuttered or reduced capacity, Altenberg added.
Given the ongoing death toll, advocates have long been calling for safe supply sites as a way to provide drug users with reliable options to curb overdose-related deaths.
In British Columbia, where new safe supply prescribing guidelines were issued at the start of the pandemic, so far more than 1,300 people have accessed safe, prescription alternatives to illicit drugs.
Provincial officials in Ontario have not opted for the safe supply route, but do fund more than a dozen consumption sites where clients can use their own drugs under staff supervision.
The federal funding amount for the two new Toronto safe supply sites has yet to be disclosed, with the official announcement scheduled for Thursday morning.
Local MPs Arif Virani for Parkdale-High Park, Adam Vaughan for Fort York, Julie Dzerowicz for Davenport, and Nathaniel Erskine-Smith for Beaches-East York will all be on hand alongside Toronto councillor and board of health chair Joe Cressy.