Ontario’s opioid-related deaths remain above pre-pandemic levels

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The number of deaths in Ontario associated with opioids continues to trend above pre-pandemic levels, with early 2023 figures suggesting the number of fatal overdoses is not significantly slowing down.

Data from the coroner’s office show opioid deaths in Ontario reached a five-year high in 2021, with over 2,800 opioid-related deaths reported. That number dropped slightly in 2022, to around 2,500.

The first three months of 2022 set the tone for the year, recording a number of deaths that was almost identical the next year.

A total of 734 deaths in January, February and March of 2021 were linked to opioid overdoses by Ontario’s chief coroner.

A year later, at the beginning of 2022, Ontario saw 645 deaths linked to opioids; in 2023, 643 deaths were believed to be opioid-related.

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The coroner’s office classifies deaths as suspected drug-related if drugs or anything used to take drugs is found at the scene of someone’s death. The definition also considers factors such as a history of drug use or physical signs of an overdose like being unresponsive and snoring before death.

The vast majority of opioid-related deaths are accidental, figures from Toronto suggest.

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Of the opioid-related deaths reported in Toronto during 2022, for example, a recent Toronto Public Health report suggests 95 per cent were accidental, with around three per cent classified as suicide.

The nature of opioid-related deaths can weigh heavy on families.

“One of the things that can be prevalent is a veil of secrecy sometimes. Families can feel shame because of the manner of death — not always, but sometimes,” Brett Denning, president of the Ontario Funeral Service Association, told Global News.

“And it is tremendously difficult because a lot, anecdotally, of these folks have watched their loved ones battle an addiction for many days, months and years.”

Opioids have played a key role in compounding the risks of street drugs in Ontario.

The opioid fentanyl, for example, is around 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin as a pain relief drug. Earlier in the year, Toronto Public Health said it was directly linked to the highest number of accidental opioid overdoses in the city.

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Opioid deaths among those aged 15 to 24 surged during the first year of the pandemic, according to research led by the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network at Unity Health Toronto. That figure came partly through contaminated drugs used recreationally, according to Dr. Tara Gomes, a scientist at Unity Health Toronto who leads the research group.

“We might be seeing increasing harms because teens and young adults are more likely to be using drugs occasionally,” she explained.

“Our drug supply is incredibly unpredictable and potent, and so if you’re only using drugs once in a while, then when you use them, if you are exposed to a very high dose or a drug that has multiple different substances in it, then you can be at really high risk of an overdose.”

At the beginning of July, police said five people had taken an unknown drug that was likely an opioid near Toronto’s waterfront; one died. In April, police said four people suffered overdoses in the downtown after taking a drug believed to contain fentanyl. Many other similar warnings have been issued across the province.

Denning, who is based in Strathroy, said those deaths were not isolated to urban centres like Toronto, but afflicted communities of all sizes.

“It is everywhere, it does not matter the size of the town,” he said “It does not discriminate based on population centre.”

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Early data from Ontario shows Toronto had the most opioid-related deaths in the province during the first three months of 2023 with 107. The City of Ottawa reported 70.

— with files from The Canadian Press and Global News’ Nathaniel Dove

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