Harm reduction workers call on Ontario to declare emergency over opioid crisis

More than 700 health care workers are calling on Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne in an open letter to declare a provincial emergency due to a “disturbing” increase in overdose deaths related to opioid use in the province in recent months.

Among those who signed the letter include harm reduction workers, nurses, doctors and academics from 59 towns and cities in Ontario. The signatories come from Southern and Northern Ontario.

“For months, front-line harm reduction workers and healthcare professionals have noted a disturbing and sustained increase in non-fatal and fatal overdoses amongst people who use drugs,” the letter reads.

“Our healthcare and public health systems have been severely limited in their ability to adequately respond as a result of limited resources and poor and outdated data that have prevented swift, safe and effective program developments for this emergency.

“The consequences have been clear: lives lost, families destroyed and harm reduction and healthworker burnout.” 

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An example of a naloxone kit. The medication, used to block the effects of opioids, can be injected into a muscle or sprayed into the nose with an applicator, seen here. (John Lesavage/CBC)

The letter is addressed to Wynne, Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins, federal Health Minister Jane Philpott, Ontario coroner Dirk Huyer, David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical health officer and provincial overdose co-ordinator, and Peter Donnelly, president of Public Health Ontario and Ontario Lt.-Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell. 

According to the letter, the Ontario government could declare an emergency under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act. It says such a move would enable harm reduction workers, public health, primary care, addictions medicine, psychiatry and internal medicine teams to develop “safe, effective and equitable” responses to the rising numbers of deaths.

A declaration of emergency would also allow the province to issue emergency orders providing increases in funding for harm reduction workers, establishing more overdose prevention sites quickly, and creating “timely” comprehensive opioid programs.

“This would send a crucial message to survivors, families and communities affected by this epidemic that their lives are respected as having equal value to that of all people living in Ontario and that the government is acting on evidence-based policy and learning from the experiences in British Columbia to protect their lives,” the letter says. 

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Two vials of naloxone taken from a kit handed out at an Ottawa pharmacy on Aug. 16, 2017. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

According to a news release, the latest data available for Ontario shows that two people died of opioid-related overdoses each day in mid-2016. 

The news release says the data shows a rise in many regions of the province in the number of emergency department visits and of overdoses attributed to fentanyl. 

A report published in April by the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network, for example, says the rate of opioid-related deaths in the province has increased dramatically over the last 25 years, skyrocketing to 734 in 2015 from 144 in 1991.

“The scale of the overdose epidemic is large with the potential to increase dramatically in a short time. This situation requires immediate action,” the letter says.

The letter says the existing health care system in Ontario is “inadequately resourced” to respond effectively to the opioid crisis. For example, it says health care agencies do not have the funding to recruit new harm reduction workers. 

A group of health care workers is expected to deliver the letter to the front steps of Queen’s Park on Monday.

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