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Advocacy group says Toronto overdose deaths highlight need for prevention sites

Last Updated Aug 15, 2018 at 6:00 pm EST

TORONTO – A string of overdose deaths in a pocket of Canada’s most populous city highlights the urgent need for new overdose prevention sites, an advocacy group said Wednesday, calling on Ontario to reverse a decision to pause the opening of such facilities.

The Toronto Overdose Prevention Society said a public safety alert from police about seven deaths believed linked to opioid use over 12 days shows that overdose prevention services should be expanding.

“This safety warning underlines why (overdose prevention sites) are so necessary, and why ‘pausing’ them in the middle of a public health crisis is so wrongheaded,” it said. “The evidence of the need for these sites is clear.”

Premier Doug Ford called overdose deaths a tragedy and agreed Wednesday that the province is facing a “crisis.” Ontario is reaching out to experts to get their input on overdose prevention sites, he said, adding that the government’s goal is to save lives, get people off drugs and into rehab.

“This is a major, major crisis,” he said. “It’s all hands on deck. It’s not just the government. It’s the police. It’s the agencies. It’s the experts. We all have to work together.”

Health Minister Christine Elliott said Monday that three sites set to open in Thunder Bay, Ont., St. Catharines, Ont., and Toronto were being put on hold as the government conducts a review to determine if such facilities will continue to operate in the province. A decision on the sites will be made by the end of September, she said.

One of the new prevention sites that did not open as scheduled on Monday due to the province’s decision was set to be located in Toronto’s 14 Division, where the seven fatal overdoses took place — though police note there is already one such facility operating in the area.

Investigators said the deaths were likely linked to the opioids fentanyl and carfentanil — synthetic painkillers far more potent than heroin.

Supt. Neil Corrigan, unit commander for 14 Division, said officers have ramped up public outreach following the deaths, which he said were unusual but not unprecedented.

“One (death) is obviously too many,” he said. “Seven is certainly something for us to be significantly concerned about.”

He said his division, which is located just west of the city’s downtown core, doesn’t necessarily have more of a drug problem than other areas but is certainly frequented by recreational drug users and people with addictions.

A spokeswoman for Toronto Public Health said that on average, Toronto Paramedics Services responded to three fatal suspected opioid overdoses per week on average over the past year — or roughly five overdoses in a 12-day period.

Toronto Mayor John Tory said overdose prevention sites are one of the ways “all three governments” are working on addressing the opioid epidemic.

“Until we decide as a country and as a province and as a city that we’re going to come to grips with the problem of mental health and addictions … we are going to continue to see this kind of thing happen,” he told reporters on Wednesday.

Overdose prevention sites are approved by the province and are temporary facilities set up to address an immediate need in a community, while safe injection sites are more permanent locations approved by the federal government after a more extensive application process.

Statistics Canada data shows that in the first six months of 2017, there were 1,460 opioid-related deaths in the country and that count is expected to rise as data becomes available.