Toronto is Finally Moving Ahead to Combat the Overdose Crisis
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Toronto is Finally Moving Ahead to Combat the Overdose Crisis

The City of Toronto is still waiting for provincial money, but has the support of Health Canada for new supervised injection sites.

Photo courtesy of Vancouver Coastal Health.

Photo courtesy of Vancouver Coastal Health.

Despite having developed and approved the Overdose Action Plan to tackle the deepening opioid crisis in Toronto back in March, the City of Toronto has taken steps to now fund the plan, as delays from the province have forced the City to “triage.”

“The good news is that it’s being implemented right now,” said Councillor Joe Cressy (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina). At its last session, Council passed a motion to immediately fund the Overdose Action Plan through the rest of 2017—at a cost to the City of about $44,000, when cost-sharing is factored in—while the City awaits money from the province.

The City had previously requested funding  to the tune of nearly $375,000 from the province, but was told by Eileen de Villa, medical officer of health, at a Board of Health meeting that the City “should not expect those funds imminently.”

The province, says Cressy, is dealing with a high volume of requests for funding, and are working to set up a framework through which to process those requests. This, however, does little to stem the tide of overdose deaths.

“Any delay risks the loss of further lives,” says Cressy.

The funding could not come soon enough, as newly released statistics from the Ontario coroner’s office show. The number of opioid-related deaths in Toronto rose by nearly 25 per cent from the first six months of 2015 compared to the first six months of 2016.

Emergency room visit statistics paint a similarly alarming picture, as the total number of visits from June through September 2016 (the most recent stats available) show a 37 per cent increase over the same period in 2015:

Statistics courtesy of Public Health Ontario

Statistics courtesy of Public Health Ontario

“People do not understand the severity of the crisis,” says Cressy. Recent federal legislation meant to streamline the application process for safe injection sites will help, he says, but “we needed them yesterday.” That legislation became law in May.

The Health Canada announced today that it has authorized three supervised injection sites in Toronto: the South Riverdale Community Health Centre, The Works, and the Queen West Central Toronto Community Health Centre. Those sites all have City approval and confirmed provincial funding, and are expected to open before the end of the year.

Those supervised injection sites are a good start, but funding for the OAP will allow the City to do more to tackle the crisis. The funding will allow the City to create three positions to operate the program: a full-time epidemiologist, who will help create real-time data; a position to increase overdose response training across City agencies; and a policy position to help guide further responses to the overdose crisis.

The decision to essentially self-fund the OAP illustrates the difficulty of a multi-pronged approach that incorporates all three levels of government; inaction at just one of the levels can have the effect of grinding the response to a halt. Safe injection sites, for instance, require city approval, provincial funding, and federal exemptions—a process which can slow the response time.

At a Board of Health meeting in May, Councillor Mike Layton (Ward 19, Trinity-Spadina) called on the municipal government to pick up the province’s slack. “In the absence of provincial action on this, it’s incumbent on the next level of government to take up the call,” he said.

For Cressy, this is a simple moral issue. “It is outrageous,” he said at a Board of Health meeting. “In a city where we know we can prevent these deaths, there is no moral reason to delay.”