Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins has agreed to fund three sites after council approved the initiative in July.
Toronto Star, written byMon., Jan. 9, 2017
Overdose deaths of more than 250 Torontonians a year is a preventable “epidemic,” the city’s public health boss declared as Ontario agreed to fund supervised drug injection services at three sites.
The opioid crisis “is having a devastating impact on individuals, on their families and on our community,” Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Toronto’s acting medical officer of health, warned at an inaugural monthly meeting after marshalling those involved in the struggle, including police and drug users.
Hours before the gathering, Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins confirmed the province will pay to install and operate sites at three health centres where users will inject their own illegal drugs under medical supervision.
“I believe that community-supported and community-run supervised injection services will not only save lives, but also must be part of a larger strategy for harm reduction and supports for people struggling with addiction,” Hoskins said in a statement.
Yaffe applauded the news, saying the city will immediately hire staff and begin renovations at the following sites:
- The Toronto Public Health-operated needle exchange at Yonge and Dundas Sts.
- Queen West Central Toronto Community Health Centre on Bathurst St.
- South Riverdale Community Health Centre near Carlaw Ave.
She expects it will be “several months” before the centres can get the required inspection and approval by Health Canada to open as Canada’s first safe-injection sites since Vancouver’s Insite launched in 2003.
Research specific to Toronto has shown such sites would effectively serve existing clients of the health centres and would prevent drug use in public areas — alleys, coffee shop bathrooms and parks — that are today home to the hazards of discarded needles.
Following a plan led by Toronto Public Health, Toronto council backed the three sites in a near-unanimous vote in July. The city earlier asked the province pay $1.8 million for annual operating expenses plus $350,000 in one-time funds for renovations.
Leigh Chapman, a registered nurse whose brother, Brad, died of a suspected fentanyl overdose in 2015, said a full effort to halt such deaths is overdue, and that the crisis has been long-overlooked because Torontonians don’t consider addicts part of society.
“We’ve said that drug users are less than other people . . . and people are dying as a result,” said Chapman, whose brother was a father of three and veteran intravenous drug user who lived in shelters before being found overdosing in the doorway of a downtown nail salon. “We should see these people as ill, as vulnerable as needing help.”
Zoe Dodd, of the South Riverdale centre, was among those representing more than 20 agencies and advocates at the meeting to ensure Toronto does not experience the wave of overdose deaths seen in British Columbia, primarily fuelled by a spike in use of fentanyl — a painkiller up to 100 times more toxic than morphine.
“We have lost a number of people attached to the community here and also our own co-workers have overdosed and died this year,” Dodd said in an interview. “Although we are not seeing people dropping dead on the street, people are dying behind closed doors in their apartments and in supportive housing and shelters. We have to be realistic that a crisis is already here.”
Yaffe said ending stigma around drug abuse is one solution, along with making opioid antidote naloxone kits available to everyone including users, their friends and families, who should not fear legal trouble if they call 911.
Data gleaned from the Ontario coroner’s office suggests at least 253 people in the city fatally overdosed in 2015, down slightly from a record high in 2014. The deaths involving fentanyl, however, surged from 23 to 42 in that single year. Officials say carfentanil, an even deadlier veterinary drug, is on Toronto streets.
Anecdotal evidence suggests the epidemic got worse in 2016 and is continuing to spread, said Yaffe, who called the coroner’s data “kind of late.”
The experts agreed Monday they need “real time” overdose information to devise targeted solutions. Some argued for a password-protected online “dashboard” where those involved in the fight can instantly trade information and raise alerts, augmenting an existing portal where drug users can anonymously post information and warnings.
Drug users often don’t know they are ingesting fentanyl, which can halt breathing and require life-saving efforts within two or three minutes, because sellers are mixing it with heroin and other drugs.
Councillor Joe Cressy, who chairs Toronto’s drug strategy implementation, said the city is proposing a pilot project with Health Canada and hospitals so drugs can be quickly analyzed at safe-injection sites. Users would know exactly what they are shooting up while nurses would know how to prevent their overdoses.
Toronto will soon release the first phase of multi-pronged “overdose action plan,” said Cressy, advocating drug treatment resources alongside safe-injection sites so addicts can get help “if and when” they are ready.
“If I had siblings I wouldn’t want them to use drugs but, if they did, I would want them to stay alive long enough to access treatment,” he said. “That’s the Toronto model we’re developing here.”
He welcomed Hoskins’s funding announcement, after previously noting the lack of guaranteed provincial funding was the only real obstacle to getting safe-injection sites operating in Toronto. Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott, a physician with a degree in public health, has said her Liberal government supports so-called harm reduction.
Under the previous Conservative federal government, safe injection sites could be granted an exemption to drug laws only after an onerous application process challenged by health and community advocates as a roadblock.
Toronto was missing the provincial funding plan and letter of support required by that system. The Liberal government has vowed to introduce a new streamlined exemption process.
Complete article and video at Toronto Star.