Health minister declares opioid emergency after overdose rates spike over summer

The number of Ontarians taken to hospitals with opioid overdoses surged over the summer, which has pushed Health Minister Eric Hoskins to declare the situation a public-health emergency.

By the end of the day Thursday, his federal counterpart Ginette Petitpas Taylor had accepted the declaration and given Ontario permission to approve temporary supervised drug-injection sites without waiting for the federal government to sign off.

Since the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act that ordinarily forbids people to use illegal drugs is a federal law, the feds are in charge, but they’re getting out of the provincial governments’ way. They run health care and oversee public health efforts.

“These overdose prevention sites are one step in what has been and will continue to be a concerted and urgent response to this crisis,” Taylor said.

The province isn’t yet sure what such temporary sites would look like, said Hoskins’ spokeswoman Laura Gallant; now that the feds have said it’s OK, the province will have to work quickly to set its requirements. But the idea is these will be somewhere between emergency tents that activists have erected in city parks and permanent injection sites in health centres that have built or renovated to create dedicated spaces.

As bad as the opioids crisis has been, the most recent figures say it’s still getting worse.

According to preliminary stats from Public Health Ontario, the rate of opioid-related visits to hospital emergency rooms was 5.6 per 100,000 people in July and 6.7 in August. It dipped to 4.9 in September, but that’s still higher than the pre-summer record of 4.8 set in June.

Although getting reliable data on deaths from opioid overdoses takes a bit longer (many cases aren’t clear-cut, involving multiple drugs and underlying illnesses), the province says 336 people died of opioids in Ontario between May and July, which is a 68 per cent increase from the same period in 2016.

Ottawa’s rates of overdoses are a little lower than the provincial average, but emergency-room visits for opioid ODs rose over the summer from about three per 100,000 people to four per 100,000 people.

It’s not a ton of emergency-room cases, but it’s more than one a day here. Many people overdosing or nearly overdosing don’t go to hospitals, either — the number is an indicator of the problem, not its full measure.

“Every life lost to this opioid crisis is an avoidable tragedy. Our government is committed to using every tool available to save lives and help communities grappling with this crisis,” Hoskins said in a written statement.

Health Canada has been giving health agencies permission to open sites where drug users can go and use needle drugs with nurses and trained staff available to help if they overdose. But getting approval is a cumbersome process involving an extensive application, public consultations and inspections.

Ottawa has two sites now: One run by Ottawa Public Health in an office on Clarence Street and a larger one in a trailer on the grounds of the Shepherds of Good Hope shelter on King Edward Avenue.

Two more, at the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre on Rideau Street and the Somerset West Community Health Centre near Somerset and Booth streets, have provisional approval but haven’t yet done the renovations they need to pass muster.

Last summer, we had none. As the opioid crisis deepened, volunteer activists calling themselves Overdose Prevention Ottawa set up a guerrilla site in a tent in Lowertown’s Raphael Brunet Park, daring the authorities to shut them down. They’d see dozens of drug users in an average night, and what they did pressured the city, province and federal governments to get the two current sites open faster.

Overdose Prevention Ottawa closed unhappily when the weather turned cold, after the province said Mayor Jim Watson blocked its offer to supply them with a heated, insulated tent.

The health unit’s site on Clarence Street operates under an ad-hoc extension of the federal permit for the Sandy Hill centre, since the centre isn’t ready to open its own injection site yet. It’s only supposed to last a few more months at most.

The idea behind transferring temporary approvals to the province is that it’ll get other sites similar to the Clarence Street office open faster, but with defined time limits on their operations. They’re supposed to help deal with a crisis that will, in theory, eventually end.

Ottawa’s public-health unit isn’t aware of anyone seeking such an approval right off the bat, spokeswoman Donna Casey said, and isn’t looking to open a second site of its own. “OPH’s focus is on the interim SIS at 179 Clarence St.,” she said. Other community-health centres have talked about opening injection sites but no other approvals are in the federal pipeline.

Hoskins calling the opioids crisis a “public-health emergency” isn’t the same thing as declaring a state of emergency under provincial legislation, the health ministry went to some trouble to say on Thursday. States of emergency are for severe but short-term disasters such as massive fires or tornadoes, and free up the government to spend money fast and restrict civil liberties, but they’re limited to two weeks.

Opioids include street drugs such as heroin, and heavy-duty prescription painkillers like oxycodone. People have always used them, legally and illegally, but overdoses have become rampant since drug labs began producing the super-potent opioids fentanyl and carfentanil in powder form. They’re easier to transport, extremely powerful and can be cut into street drugs or disguised as pharmaceutical-grade pills. Users don’t know what they’re taking and can overdose unexpectedly.

Earlier this fall, Ottawa police reported having samples of seized drugs thought to be heroin tested by Health Canada; the lab found they contained no heroin at all. One had carfentanil and the other a mix of fentanyl and carfentanil, combined with fillers.

The province is also distributing anti-overdose kits to every fire department and police force in the province, since firefighters and officers often beat paramedics to 911 calls.

dreevely@postmedia.com
twitter.com/davidreevely

No Comments Yet.

Leave a comment

You must be Logged in to post a comment.