Toronto recorded 16 suspected opioid overdose deaths in the space of nine days in July, according to the city's medical officer of health.
Dr. Eileen de Villa told reporters at a city hall briefing on Monday that the deaths happened between July 8 and July 17. Most of those who died were under the age of 40, she said. She called the news "extremely difficult" to report.
"Unfortunately, the ongoing opioid poisoning crisis has been further compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, and these dual public health crises are having a significant impact on our community," de Villa said.
"We know that the unregulated drug supply is having a devastating impact on people who use drugs. Too often there are unexpected drugs or contaminants in the drugs people are consuming, and this is resulting in fatal and non-fatal overdoses."
De Villa said she thinks physical distancing, a public health measure promoted by Toronto Public Health (TPH) to reduce the spread of COVID-19, can be isolating and can lead some people, who would otherwise be careful, to use drugs alone. The result can be death, she said.
TPH is continuing to issue drug alerts to ensure people have current information about toxic drugs circulating in the city and to promote harm reduction strategies to prevent overdose deaths, she added.
"We are committed to addressing this very complex challenge."
De Villa extended condolences on the behalf of TPH to family and friends of the people who died.
'The time to act was yesterday'
In May, the public health unit recommended to the Toronto Board of Health that it call on the federal and provincial governments to expand programs that allow for a safer supply of drugs. Its recommendations were adopted.
"These programs provide access to safe medications along with other supports and referrals to health and social services," de Villa said. "We now look to our provincial and federal counterparts to respond to our recommendations."
Coun. Joe Cressy, chair of the Toronto Board of Health, said on Monday in a tweet: "The opioid-poisoning crisis is painful and preventable."
Cressy continued: "We know what works. Governments need to come together to expand harm reduction services, fund safe supply, and decriminalize drug use now. The time to act was yesterday."
According to a July 17 drug alert issued by TPH, which reported on 15 out of the 16 deaths, the suspected opioid overdose-related deaths happened largely in downtown Toronto and the city's northwest.
It called the deaths the "worst cluster of suspected opioid overdose-related calls involving deaths" since the city began monitoring such data in 2017.
The alert says reports from the community indicate that the overdoses involved crack cocaine and fentanyl. But it says information on other substances in the drugs was not available.
Fatal opioid calls to paramedics on rise since March
Previous drug checking data shows the unregulated supply in Toronto contains such substances as benzodiazepines, the alert says.
The federal government on its website says benzodiazepines are drugs often used as sedatives and tranquillizers.
"Although they are some of the most commonly prescribed medications, there is still a risk of overdose and substance use disorder associated with them," the government says.
According to the alert, opioid overdose calls to paramedics involving deaths have been consistently higher since March, when the pandemic hit Toronto, with a brief decrease recorded in June.
"The public health measures needed to prevent spread of COVID-19 continue to create challenges for people who use drugs, and for service providers," the alert reads.
Province says it has provided up to $12M for services
The Ontario government, when asked about Toronto overdose deaths, said it provided emergency funding of up to $12 million in April for the mental health and addictions sector to expand online and virtual services, and reduce service disruption.
"Ontario recognizes that mental health and addictions issues have emerged as one of the most serious health and social challenges facing families, children and youth," Alexandra Hilkene, spokesperson for Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott, said in an email on Tuesday.
Hilkene said the ministry continues to fund and support all 21 consumption and treatment services sites in Ontario. The sites provide sterile, single-use drug-use equipment and naloxone.
The sites have made changes due to the pandemic to ensure staff and clients remain safe, including:
- Modifying operations to allow for physical distancing.
- Ensuring staff and clients wash hands frequently and do not share items.
- Screening clients before they enter.
- Establishing rooms or areas to separate clients with symptoms.
- Enhanced cleaning and sanitizing.
"We will continue to work with our partners across the mental health and addictions sector to identify further opportunities for investment to ensure Ontarians receive the high-quality mental health and addictions care they expect and deserve," Hilkene added.