Toronto Public Health (TPH) has released preliminary data from the Office of the Chief Coroner for Ontario highlighting a record high number of confirmed opioid overdose deaths in Toronto in 2020 – a total of 521 fatalities. This represents a 78 per cent increase from 2019 and a 280 per cent increase from 2015.
Notable increases in overdose deaths have occurred since the COVID-19 emergency was declared in 2020. Prior to COVID-19, the average number of fatal calls attended by paramedics in Toronto for suspected opioid overdoses was 13 per month. During COVID-19, it has increased to 26 per month. Fatal calls for suspected opioid overdoses attended by paramedics are usually half of the number of opioid toxicity deaths in Toronto reported by the Office of the Chief Coroner.
In 2021, the overdose crisis has continued to worsen. TPH recently issued a drug alert here about the worst cluster of fatal, suspected opioid-overdose-related calls attended by Toronto Paramedic Services. Between May 2 and May 6, 2021, 13 fatal suspected opioid-related overdose calls occurred, including five fatal calls on the day of May 6, which is the highest daily number on record since TPH began tracking this data.
More information about overdose data is available here
TPH continues to be incredibly concerned about the impacts that both the overdose crisis and the COVID-19 emergency are having on people who use drugs. The overdose crisis continues to be an urgent public health issue in Toronto and across Ontario, and it has been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Toronto’s Drug Checking Service has detected increasingly toxic and unpredictable contaminants in the unregulated drug supply in Toronto, and has issued a number of alerts here . Essential services that people have relied on, including supervised consumption services, have had to adapt to accommodate necessary public health precautions, such as physical distancing, to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In some cases, this has limited their capacity to provide services to as many people as they served prior to COVID-19.
TPH remains committed in its work to implement the Toronto Overdose Action Plan and to address emerging issues, working with City and community partners. TPH continues to provide harm reduction and treatment services through The Works during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In April 2021, TPH received funding from Health Canada to operate a safer supply clinic to offer injectable opioid agonist treatment (iOAT). This program is the first in Toronto to offer injectable hydromorphone for people with opioid use disorder, who do not respond to currently available services and remain at high risk of overdose. TPH will begin enrolling its first clients in early June.
Additional efforts to address the noted increases in overdoses among people who are experiencing homelessness have also been initiated. This has included co-ordinating and providing evidence-based harm reduction support at the City’s physical distancing hotels and shelters, including naloxone distribution, harm reduction training and options for overdose response.
TPH has also expanded supervised consumption services by opening Urgent Public Health Need Sites (UPHNS) as part of the Integrated Prevention and Harm Reduction Initiative (iPHARE), which is led by Shelter, Support and Housing Administration along with other City divisions and community agencies. The sites provide lifesaving services for residents in physical distancing hotels, and ensure that someone is available to provide medical support if someone overdoses. Staff are also onsite to link residents in the physical distancing hotels to other health and social services. Further information on iPHARE is available here
TPH and the Board of Health continue to advocate for the expansion of all critical services that support people who use drugs, including harm reduction and evidence-based treatment. Decriminalization of the simple possession of drugs, and expanded safer supply programs that provide alternatives to the city’s unregulated drug supply, along with health and social supports for people who use drugs, are urgently needed. Further action from all orders of government are needed more than ever to address this public health emergency and to save lives.
“We have seen a tragic increase in overdoses throughout the pandemic and the data released today confirms this crisis has been made worse by the COVID-19 emergency. Any life lost to a drug overdose is preventable and thus unacceptable. The experts are clear that harm reduction programs will save lives and that’s why the City and Toronto Public Health has worked to implement those programs in our city with the help of the Government of Canada. I am determined to keep working with the other governments to help people with substance use issues, to expand treatment programs, and to save lives. Much of this should properly be done by our healthcare system and I look to the province for increased initiative.”
– Mayor John Tory
“More than 2,000 people in Ontario – and 521 people in Toronto alone – died of an opioid overdose last year. The loss is unimaginable. The fact that these deaths are preventable is unconscionable. To all governments: we need treatment, prevention, harm reduction, and a comprehensive public health approach to stop this overdose epidemic.”
– Councillor Joe Cressy (Spadina-Fort York), Chair of the Toronto Board of Health
“While we continue to respond to COVID-19, we cannot forget about the other significant public health emergency that is also claiming the lives of Toronto residents. The opioid overdose crisis continues to remain an urgent public health issue that requires all levels of government to respond to save lives. We mourn the loss of these deaths, that could have been prevented, and extend our most sincere condolences to the family, friends and loved ones of these individuals.”
– Dr. Eileen de Villa, Medical Officer of Health
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Media contact: TPH Media Relations, email@example.com