Ontario’s health minister has repeatedly denied there is a lack of comprehensive real-time data to track the opioid overdose death crisis in the province, despite Premier Kathleen Wynne conceding earlier this week that more information is needed to track the growing problem.
“We do have real time surveillance and data that comes from more than 100 hospitals around the province,” Dr. Eric Hoskins told Global News Thursday, in response to questions about whether enough is being done to track opioid overdose deaths in Ontario.
But when Wynne was asked the same question Monday, her response was much different.
“It’s time to make sure we have all the information in the most timely way possible,” she said. “We don’t have that at this point and so whether it’s appointing someone or whether it’s doing something else, we need to have that information in a timely way.”
NDP Health Critic France Gélinas questioned when the government will commit to real-time monitoring of all overdose deaths across the province in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario Monday, to which Hoskins responded that he would have more to say on the issue in the near future.
Hoskins was then asked by Progressive Conservative MPP Jeff Yurek in the Ontario legislature again Wednesday why the province hasn’t responded to the growing opioid overdose crisis in a more proactive way.
“Every day we read about the opioid crisis and how it is killing someone in Ontario every 14 hours. Western provinces have already created a system to track these overdoses, finding real time data for the fentanyl crisis. They utilize the data to deal with this drug crisis,” Yurek said.
“However, Ontario is unable to track in real-time and the data they are using currently is from 2014. … When will the minister put in place a system to track the overdoses and deal with the opioid crisis that’s killing Ontarians everyday?”
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Experts say the government has yet to act meaningfully to address the growing problem and Ontario’s latest publicly released data on opioid overdose deaths, which are overseen by the Ontario Chief Coroner’s Office, were last released in 2014. Meaning there is no up-to-date picture of how bad the problem currently is.
The latest available data showed opioid overdose deaths rose to 553 people in Ontario in 2014, while fentanyl-related deaths climbed to 153, according to the Chief Coroner for Ontario.
Global News obtained preliminary data from the Chief Coroner’s Office for 2015, which showed there were 529 opioid overdoses in Ontario last year — 162 of which involved fentanyl.
B.C. Premier Christy Clark announced a joint task force to tackle the problem she called “alarming and frightening” in July, after data showed there had been a 74 per cent increase in fentanyl deaths to a total of 371.
But Ontario has yet to take the same kind of action. Hoskins has repeatedly said the province does have a real-time system to track opioid overdose deaths but that program, the Acute Care Enhanced Surveillance System, receives data from just 118 of 145 public hospitals in Ontario and has information on opioid-related emergency department visits — but not specifically on overdose deaths.
“Now when it comes to opioid deaths or overdose deaths, it is slightly more complicated … but I want to reassure Ontarians that in fact we didn’t need to take the measure that B.C. did because we already had in place an automated, real-time process through triage at hospital ERs that provides the ministry immediately with that data with regards to overdoses in the majority of hospitals in this province.”
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In response, Yurek raised Wynne’s conflicting comments from earlier this week in the Legislative Assembly.
“It’s interesting that the premier contradicted the minister’s claims when speaking to Global News’ Alan Carter. She said Ontario does not have the data the minister claims to have and they should actually appoint someone to look into the problem,” he said.
“Even the premier doesn’t believe the minister’s claims. Health professionals and law enforcement need the tools to deal with the fentanyl crisis. When will the government get its act together and come up with a plan to deal with this opioid crisis?”
But Hoskins had a different take on Wynne’s comments.
“Well, I was standing about two feet away from the premier when she did address this with Alan Carter and that certainly isn’t my recollection of what she did say,” he responded in the legislature Wednesday, adding that suspected overdose deaths are referred to the Chief Coroner for Ontario – who chooses whether or not to conduct a death investigation.
“There is a time required to undertake that death investigation to determine in fact that that overdose is due to a narcotic overdose … and to the specific type of narcotic whether it’s opioid or other.
“That process does take a little bit longer, however we are working with the coroner and many others — I hope to have more to say shortly on this in terms of further improving the system that’s in place.”
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Shaun Hopkins, manager of the needle exchange program at Toronto Public Health, said it’s difficult to determine how bad the overdose death problem in Ontario currently is with dangerous opioids such as fentanyl.
“We need to know at the needle exchange program level, working with people who are at risk for overdose, we need to know today — right now what’s on the street,” she said.
“There’s no real time reporting, it takes a long time to get toxicology results. We have been able to create some systems where we have some indications that there might be some problems going on and we’ve used those to develop some alerts to give out to our clients and other people who use drugs.
“But it’s not enough. So we need to do more.”