Toronto is speeding up the opening of three supervised injection sites and asking local police to consider having some officers carry the opioid overdose antidote naloxone as the city responds to a spike in suspected opioid-related deaths.
The measures were among several laid out Thursday after the city’s mayor held an emergency meeting with first responders, public health officials and some city councillors.
“These are unimaginable tragedies and, make no mistake, an overdose death is a preventable death,” Mayor John Tory said in a statement. “Today, I asked our first responders to ensure we are doing everything as fast as possible to implement Toronto’s overdose action plan.”
Many Canadian cities have grappled with drug overdose deaths in recent months.
The most notable is likely Vancouver, which has recorded 25 deaths and nearly 600 overdose calls in June alone. The opioid crisis claimed 935 lives in the British Columbia last year.
In Toronto, the issue has been thrust under the spotlight recently after the overdose deaths of four people between Thursday and Sunday last week. Two young women also died in an apartment in the city’s west end Tuesday in what paramedics called suspected overdoses.
While the exact cause of the incidents was not confirmed in most cases, police said they believed fentanyl may have played a role. The potent drug can be fatal, even in trace amounts that may have been laced into other drugs.
Toronto released an overdose action plan in March. On Thursday, it announced ways in which it was ramping up its efforts.
Three supervised injection sites coming to central Toronto, which had been expected sometime in the fall, will open sooner, the city said. The sites allow people to use illicit drugs under the supervision of a medical professional.
The city has also asked Toronto police to consider the targeted distribution of naloxone to some officers. A spokesman for the force said police chief Mark Saunders would be meeting with the mayor shortly to discuss the request.
Toronto further plans to step up training for paramedics and firefighters in areas of the city flagged as having the highest number of calls for service, and will also increase public education on overdoses.
The city is also mulling emergency bulk purchases of naloxone as part of its efforts for quicker distribution to necessary personnel.
Coun. Joe Cressy, chair of the Toronto Drug Strategy Implementation Panel, said the city will provide naloxone kits to all firefighters by the end of the September, adding that paramedics already have access to the antidote.
City officials are also in talks with Health Canada about providing drug testing services so users can determine if drugs are laced with other substances such as fentanyl, he said.
“In the city of Toronto we’ve had an overdose crisis for a decade,” Cressy said. “Unfortunately, this crisis is now escalating rapidly.”
The city said it is also committing to better data sharing about overdose information and tracking whether naloxone has been used at calls where paramedics have been dispatched.
“With respect to the data we have right now, from emergency departments, it is reported as overdoses at large and so we don’t have the exact details at this stage of the game,” Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, told reporters after Thursday’s meeting.
“That’s one of the many things we were talking about … how to refine the information and how to refine the information that’s available faster so that we actually take appropriate actions.”
Earlier this year, Ontario’s chief coroner announced the province would be changing the way it tracks and analyses overdoses and other drug-related fatalities in an effort to provide speedier data.
Toronto Public Health’s most recent data indicates that there were 87 opioid-related deaths in the city in the first six months of 2016, and there were 135 opioid-related deaths in 2015.
De Villa said that while discouraging residents from using drugs in the first place is a key part of the city’s education campaign, she said harm reduction services also need to be part of the bigger picture. She said Toronto Public Health believes access to naloxone should be provided to all those who might benefit from it.
“That’s so we can make sure that we can actually deal appropriately with circumstances of overdose,” she said. “I think it is an important step and we’re pushing that.”
More than 1,000 naloxone kits have been distributed to Toronto Public Health’s front-line staff, the city said.