Opioid overdose deaths in Ontario will soon be tracked faster

Chief Coroner for Ontario, Dr. Dirk Huyer, is seen in this May 30, 2016 photo. .
Chief Coroner for Ontario, Dr. Dirk Huyer, is seen in this May 30, 2016 photo. . Keith Beaty / Toronto Star via Getty Images

Ontario’s chief coroner is making drastic changes to the collection of information on fatal opioid overdoses to gain a better picture of the growing crisis throughout the province, by investigating deaths in a much more timely fashion.

“We certainly recognize this is a significant and ongoing problem and so we wanted to figure out a mechanism to be able to provide data that would be more robust — so more data — and also more timely,” Dr. Dirk Huyer told Global News Tuesday.

“We’re just in the latter stages of developing a process where we will be proactively collecting information where we believe the circumstances raise suspicion of a drug-related death, specifically an opioid-related death.”

READ MORE: Ontario to track opioid overdoses on weekly basis for first time after spike in deaths

Huyer said that his office will use existing data to identify trends about opioid overdoses ahead of time, instead of relying on the current system in place that can only provide data on a yearly basis.

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“What we’re going to be doing is reporting out within a number of months what’s occurring and what’s the information that’s available from a number of points of view,” he said.

“It’s really a much deeper drilling down on the data that will be available.”

READ MORE: A province-by-province look at opioid-overdose stats, including fentanyl

Huyer said the coroner’s office will be able to determine specific trends and demographics related to opioid overdoses under quicker time frames.

“We’ll be able to say, ‘OK how many 20-year-olds died during March? How many people died in Toronto during March? How many people died from illicit drug use during March?How many people died of illicit during the two days of March 2 and 3?'” he said.

“We’re going to have much more information that’s going to allow people to ask questions that we couldn’t get answers very easily for before. It required substantial review of charts to get all of that information otherwise.”

VIDEO: Ontario to begin tracking opioid overdoses for first time after spike in deaths

Ontario to begin tracking opioid overdoses for first time after spike in deaths
Ontario to begin tracking opioid overdoses for first time after spike in deaths

Huyer said his office would also be able to more quickly determine factors such as whether a person who overdosed was prescribed medication or if they had purchased illicit drugs on the street, to provide a “common set of data” to be collected for all opioid-related deaths in order to conduct a “broader analysis” and identify trends.

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He added that all of that information is available in the chief coroner’s office’s current investigations, but that it’s not captured in a systematic or proactive way.

“What we’re doing is, as opposed to going backwards and looking at the charts after everything is complete, we’re going to collect the data proactively right at the start and have that collected in a format that would allow us to do analysis,” he said.

“So it’s really not changing the data we’re collecting, it’s how we’re collecting the data and then putting in a process that allows us to do analysis much more quickly.”

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Huyer said he does not have a time frame on when exactly the new system will be implemented due to the fact that it’s a “big change,” but he said his office’s goal is to have access to the information within months.

“Giving you the specific number of months would be premature, because we honestly don’t know where we’ll be,” he said. “But definitely within months, definitely not a year or more than one year which is what our data takes right now to be in a position to be released.”

The province announced Tuesday it had distributed more than 28,000 kits of the lifesaving overdose drug naloxone free of charge in more than 1,000 pharmacies and 40 public health units across Ontario as of last month.

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READ MORE: Toronto widow speaks out after husband overdoses on cocaine possibly laced with fentanyl

Ontario Health Minister Dr. Eric Hoskins and Correctional Services Minister Marie-France Lalonde said more that 500 naloxone kits had also been distributed to at-risk inmates upon their release from 10 provincial correctional facilities. All 26 facilities are expected to offer the kits by the end of spring.

Provincial Overdose Coordinator Dr. David Williams said in a release that around one in every 170 deaths in the province is opioid-related.

“If we are going to reverse this troubling trend, the entire health care system must continue to work together,” Williams said.

“Distributing naloxone kits to those at risk of an overdose and their friends and families is an important step in the right direction.”

READ MORE: Ontario doctor who lost everything speaks out on fentanyl addiction ahead of sentence

In a recent example of how effective the kits can be, a 20-year-old man was saved by naloxone after overdosing in Brantford, Ont. early Sunday morning.

Brantford police said the man was taken by a friend to Brantford General Hospital without vital signs after going into “medical distress.”

Physicians at the hospital were able to administer naloxone, also known as Narcan, in time and successfully revived the man. He was later released after being medically cleared.

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Police said they believed the man overdosed on cocaine laced with fentanyl, a powerful painkiller that is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine.

READ MORE: Experts sound alarm after 40% increase of fentanyl-laced street drugs tested in Canada

In 2010, there were 421 fatal opioid overdoses in Ontario, with 93 of those being opioid and alcohol-related.

That number rose dramatically to 551 with 159 deaths related to alcohol and opioids in 2015, according to the latest available preliminary data from the Chief Coroner for Ontario’s office released last month. Eighty-six of those deaths were caused by fentanyl in 2010, with five related to alcohol, which almost doubled to 167 in 2015 and 37 related to alcohol.

In total, 710 Ontarians are believed to have died from opioid-related deaths in 2015.

As of April 1, Ontario hospitals with emergency departments began tracking opioid overdoses in the province on a weekly basis for the first time in an effort to gain a near real-time look at the growing crisis.

For more information on where to get a kit in Ontario visit or the provincial government’s naloxone website.