TORONTO – Opioid overdose-related visits to Ontario emergency rooms are sharply rising, the provincial government said Tuesday as it announced new measures to tackle what has been described as a national public health crisis.
The latest government data show that in April, May and June there were 1,898 such ER visits – a 76 per cent increase from the same time period last year, and a 40 per cent increase from the first three months of this year.
At least 2,816 Canadians died from opioid-related causes in 2016 – 865 of them in Ontario. It is not known how many people have died from opioid overdoses in the province so far this year, but public health officials predict the number will rise.
In June, the rate of opioid-related ER visits per 100,000 people in Ontario was 4.8 – up from 2.9 in January and 2.6 last June.
“With regards to emergency room visits, we’re seeing an escalation,” Health Minister Eric Hoskins said. “It’s very troubling. It reinforces the importance of the steps that we’re taking.”
The province also announced that it will be making fentanyl test strips available to supervised injection sites – including pop-up ones – so users can test their drug for the presence of fentanyl, which is 100 times more powerful than heroin.
“We’ve seen in British Columbia when an individual with opioid use disorder, a user, tests and detects fentanyl in the drug that they were not expecting, they actually reduce the dose that they take, so it’s had very tangible and positive impacts in British Columbia,” Hoskins said.
The test strips are something that harm reduction workers pressed the minister and the premier for when they met with the politicians last month, Hoskins said.
More than 700 doctors, nurses, harm reduction workers and academics called on the province to declare opioid deaths and overdoses a public health emergency, as British Columbia did last year. They say limited resources and poor data are preventing them from responding properly to a disturbing and sustained increase in overdoses.
But Premier Kathleen Wynne has said an emergency declaration is more appropriate for time-limited events.
Ontario has committed $280 million over three years to fighting the opioid crisis.
It includes expanding the supply of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone to at-risk people by distributing it through emergency departments, more access to treatment and community-based withdrawal management services and addictions programs, expanding rapid access addiction medicine clinics across the province, money to hire more front-line harm reduction workers.
It also includes money for Indigenous-specific care, youth-specific services, partnering with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health to expand addiction treatment provided by family health teams, supporting health-care providers on appropriate pain management and opioid prescribing and more money for harm reduction programs such as needle exchanges and supervised injection services.
There are three supervised injection sites coming to Toronto and one to Ottawa, with temporary sanctioned and unsanctioned sites popping up in the meantime.
Hoskins said he expects to get more requests for site approvals from other municipalities.