TORONTO – More than 700 doctors, nurses, harm reduction workers and academics are calling on Ontario to declare opioid overdoses and deaths an emergency, as British Columbia did last year.
The front-line workers delivered an open letter Monday to Premier Kathleen Wynne, saying limited resources and poor data are preventing them from responding properly to a disturbing and sustained increase in overdoses.
“The consequences have been clear: lives lost, families destroyed and harm reduction and healthcare worker burnout,” they write.
An emergency declaration would allow for increased funding to front-line harm reduction workers, more overdose prevention sites and opioid programs, they write.
In the first six months of last year, 412 Ontarians died of opioid overdoses – an 11-per-cent increase from the previous year. That is currently the most recent data available on opioid deaths.
Health Minister Eric Hoskins has noted Ontario launched a strategy on opioid addiction and overdose last year, has provided funding for new front-line addiction and mental health workers and is distributing more than 6,500 kits with the overdose-reversing drug naloxone each month.
Hoskins’ office said significant further supports will be announced soon as part of the opioid strategy.
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The group was unable to quantify how much more funding is needed to address the crisis, but said it’s certainly in the millions and needs to come urgently.
“We’re leaving the responsibility of this crisis to people’s families and their friends and people who use drugs to save each other’s lives and it is not OK,” said harm reduction worker Zoe Dodd.
“It is hard to manage what’s going on and we are trying our best but it is time that the government step up and do something. We cannot afford to lose any more people and we are losing people at an alarming rate.”
Dr. Alexander Caudarella, an addiction physician, said the declaration of an emergency would also send a symbolic message “to the front-line workers that they’re not alone and will send a powerful message to those suffering with addiction, to those who use substances and to their families that their lives have value.”
B.C. declared a public health emergency in April 2016 after 201 overdose deaths were recorded in the first three months of that year, 64 of them involving fentanyl.
The Ontario NDP said it supports the group’s call.
“The need for action is urgent and any further delays by the Wynne government are simply unacceptable,” health critic France Gelinas said in a statement.