January 9, 2017 1:57 pm
Updated: January 9, 2017 7:56 pm

Ontario commits to funding 3 supervised safe injection sites in Toronto

WATCH ABOVE: Overdoses from fentanyl-laced drugs killed hundreds of people in Western Canada last year. It's an epidemic that is quickly spreading to other parts of the country. As Vuchnich reports, Canada's largest city isn't waiting until the situation get worse before it takes steps to save lives.

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Ontario’s health minister says “more can be done” to tackle the opioid crisis at a community level in the province and has committed to funding three supervised safe injection sites in Toronto at an estimated annual cost of about $1.6 million and an initial cost of $400,000.

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Dr. Eric Hoskins wrote a letter to Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott in conjunction with Toronto’s application for exemption under the Controlled Substances Act to provide the sites at three existing health care facilities.

Those include The Works Toronto Public Health building on Victoria Street, the Queen West-Central Toronto Community Health Centre on Bathurst Street and the South Riverdale Community Health Centre on Queen Street East.

READ MORE: Toronto to make formal federal request for safe injection sites on World AIDS Day

Hoskins said one in every 170 deaths in Ontario is related to opioid use, with that number rising to one in eight deaths among adults aged 25 to 34.

WATCH: Toronto City Council votes to approve three safe injection sites downtown (July 14)

Between 2006 and 2013, he said, there were almost 20,000 visits to hospital emergency rooms connected to “opioid toxicity” and more than 10,000 admissions to hospital — an increase of almost 25 per cent during that time period.

“Ontario has some of the highest rates of opioid prescribing in the world,” Hoskins said.

“These numbers show the need for urgent action and commitment. … I believe that community supported and community run [safe injection sites] will not only save lives but will also be part of a larger strategy for harm reduction and supports for people who use drugs.”

WATCH: Heartbreaking stories from the frontlines of the fentanyl crisis

Hoskins also wrote to his federal counterpart Jane Philpott in support a site at Sandy Hill Community Health Centre in Ottawa, as both projects await word from Health Canada on their requests for federal exemptions from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Health Canada did not comment Monday.

The minister’s vocal support comes as Toronto Mayor John Tory holds a meeting with politicians, public health officials and other stakeholders in the city Monday to develop strategies to tackle the fentanyl-fuelled opioid crisis moving across the country.

The Toronto Overdose Early Warning and Alert Partnership held its first meeting with the hopes of providing a better understanding of drug overdoses and related trends in the city.

“I don’t think that we can sit back and be complacent for one moment,” Tory said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

“The first thing you have to do is to form a partnership that sort of says everybody is going to be at the table, exchanging information, exchanging knowledge.”

READ MORE: Toronto city councillors approve 3 safe injection sites throughout the city

Tory said he has been watching the spike of fentanyl-related overdoses in Vancouver, and had been warned by Mayor Gregor Robertson to “get ready.”

Toronto’s acting medical officer of health Barbara Yaffe said the city recorded 45 fentanyl-related overdose deaths in 2015, compared to 23 deaths in 2014.

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath urged support for the supervised injection sites “without further delay” in an open letter to premier Kathleen Wynne Monday, after Toronto city council supported the initiative last July.

WATCH: Dangerous opioid carfentanil surfaces in Ontario

“The evidence from public health officials is clear: Supervised-injection sites will save lives in Toronto,” she said. “But six months after Council voted in favour of this plan, people in Toronto are still waiting for the provincial government to do its part.”

Horwath said the funding costs were a “small price to pay” to support a proven public health initiative that will “save lives and reduce health system costs.”

“Action is needed now,” she said, adding the “inaction” on the part of the provincial government has been “disappointing” and “incredibly frustrating.”

“It should not take six months, in the face of a national overdose crisis, for the provincial government to approve funding and issue letters of support for the City of Toronto’s supervised-injection sites.”

READ MORE: Ontario Provincial Police join fentanyl awareness campaign on social media

Hoskins said the province has a long-standing commitment to harm reduction programs, such as the Needle Exchange Program, which have “proven successful at saving lives and reducing costs to the health care system.”

He added the province has taken several steps to address the crisis in Ontario, including appropriate prescribing legislation, the de-listing of high dose opioids, increased access to overdose antidote naloxone as part of a “comprehensive opioid strategy” to address the growing problem in October last year.

READ MORE: Opioid use taking toll in Ontario with hundreds of overdose deaths: report

“However, more can be done to tackle the opioid issue in the community level,” Hoskins said, adding the safe injection site proposal appeared “logical and supported by evidence.”

“More than anything, I believe these initiatives around supervised injection services are an opportunity to bring together all jurisdictions to tackle addictions and narcotics misuse.”

With files from The Canadian Press

WATCH: Heartbreaking stories from the frontlines of the fentanyl crisis

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