Paramedics attend a record 40 suspected opioid overdose calls, 3 deaths in 24 hours

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In the last 24 hours, Toronto paramedics have responded to a record 40 calls in the city for suspected opioid overdoses including three deaths.

According to a statement Saturday from Toronto Public Health (TPH), this is the highest daily number of calls that Toronto Paramedic Services has ever recorded.

The record-breaking figure comes after a news release issued by TPH on Friday which reported 34 deaths as a result of suspected opioid overdoses in December 2020 — also a new record according to the public health unit.

In a news release issued Friday, the public health agency said this new figure "represents the worst loss of lives to the opioid crisis recorded in a single month since TPH began monitoring this data in 2017."

Moreover, between Jan. 1 and Jan. 26 of this year, data shows that there were 30 calls to paramedics for suspected opioid overdoses that turned out to be fatal.

"The opioid poisoning crisis has intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. We continue to lose too many lives to these preventable deaths. Each person is someone's loved one, friend or colleague. They all deserved the chance and the support to see where else life might have taken them," Toronto's Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa said in a statement.

Data shows that suspected fatal opioid overdose calls to paramedics were up 90 per cent in 2020 than the previous year.

City councillor Joe Cressy, who's also Chair of the Toronto Board of Health, called the issue a "preventable emergency," in a tweet Saturday.

While TPH said a contributing factor to the spike in numbers includes a very toxic drug supply, Taryn Grieder, a research associate at the University of Toronto's Donnelly Centre, said another factor is the increase of mental health issues during the pandemic.

"The isolation and the stress that comes from that ... they're so stressed and a lot of people with their response to stress in the past, especially drug users, is to use drugs to escape from that stress," Grieder said.

Data from the coroner's office confirmed 341 opioid-related deaths in Toronto from Jan.1 to Sept. 30, 2020, while early data for all drug-related deaths in the city, including opioids, shows 823 deaths in 2020 — 67 per cent higher than the 494 deaths reported in 2019.

Michael Charles Cole/CBC
Michael Charles Cole/CBC

Meanwhile, the city says the Toronto Paramedic Services' data doesn't capture all opioid-related deaths, and the data from Ontario's Office of the Chief Coroner shows, on average, double the number of deaths than those attended by paramedics.

The office said the number of deaths in 2020 is likely to increase as more data becomes available.

TPH said it "remains focused on implementing the Toronto Overdose Action Plan" and working with community partners to help address the emerging issues related to the opioid crisis and COVID-19.

They said this includes more harm reduction support at the city's physical distancing hotels and shelters, distribution of naloxone and training for overdose response.

All levels of government are needed: TPH, city councillor

Cressy is calling on the provincial and federal government to do more about the ongoing opioid crisis.

"We need the provincial government to provide safe supply [programs] as a form of opioid substitution treatment, which they are unwilling to do. And we need the federal government to treat this like a health issue, not a criminal justice issue," Cressy said.

Recently, the city launched Urgent Public Health Need Sites (UPHNS), which provides supervised consumption options for people who use drugs and who are participating in the city's hotel shelter programs.

But he said "far more action is needed."

Cressy said the board of health is calling on their federal and provincial partners to do more, such as remove the current provincial cap on supervised consumption sites and fund treatment and harm reduction programs that can adapt to COVID-19 requirements,

"All levels of government are needed to effectively respond to the opioid poisoning crisis," TPH said.

The federal government said it is investing $10 million to support research on mental health and substance use during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Toronto Mayor John Tory said he recently met with Michael Tibollo, the province's associate minister of mental health and addictions to discuss the need for better support for those with opioid addictions.