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Overdose deaths in Ontario climb by up to 40% since pandemic started: Chief Coroner

A syringe and a cigarette butt are seen on the pavement in Toronto in an undated file photo. CITYNEWS/Hugues Cormier

Overdose deaths in Ontario have dramatically risen since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the province’s Chief Coroner revealed on Thursday.

“We are unfortunately seeing an incredibly increased number of deaths from drug toxicity and the number is upwards of 35 to 40 per cent higher than we’ve seen since the pandemic started, compared to last year’s numbers,” Chief Coroner Dirk Huyer said during a provincial health update.

“When we talk about this, these are many individuals who families, communities, friends, loved ones have lost,” he stressed.

Huyer said drug abuse and mental health issues are being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and officials are working to find solutions to what he called a “very complex” issue.

“We are working together … to look at best ways to understand what strategies are in place to try to respond to this in the most effective way.”

Toronto has seen a surge in overdoses, prompting a call for action from Toronto Board of Health chair and city councillor, Joe Cressy.

Cressy urged all levels of government to take action following what he says was the largest number of opioid deaths recorded (27) in a single month by Toronto Public Health in July.

In August, Cressy, a vocal champion of supervised injection sites, said a new public health approach is needed to halt what he called “tragic, avoidable deaths.”

“Over the past four years, 14,000 Canadians have died from an opioid overdose. These people are our friends, relatives, neighbours,” Cressy said in a statement.

“In recent months, we have turned to our public health experts to guide us through the COVID-19 pandemic. We have heeded their advice and followed their directives. Now, it’s time we do the same when it comes to protecting people who use drugs.”

Cressy noted that the Toronto Board of Health in June called on the provincial and federal governments to take a number of actions to reduce overdose deaths, including removing the provincial cap on supervised consumption and overdose preventative measures.

Cressy’s call for a new approach was echoed by Dr. Alexis Crabtree, the lead author of a study released in late August on the overdose crisis.

Dr. Crabtree, a resident physician in public health and preventative medicine at the University of British Columbia, said her study found that the “overdose crisis is not driven by prescribed medications and de-prescribing initiatives alone won’t solve the overdose crisis.”

In most cases where prescribed opioids were implicated in a death, the toxicology report also flagged the non-prescribed opioids in the person’s system, she added.

The study’s findings also highlight the declining role of prescription opioids and heroin in the overdose crisis and the rise of synthetic opioids and stimulants.

The current strategies on battling the overdose crisis “must do much more” than target de-prescribing opioids, the study concluded.