Ontario health-care workers call on province to declare opioid emergency

In a letter to Premier Kathleen Wynne, front-line health workers say they’re unable to respond effectively to an increase in overdoses

Fentanyl pills are shown in a handout photo. Police say organized crime groups have been sending a potentially deadly drug through British Columbia to Alberta and Saskatchewan using hidden compartments in vehicles. (Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams/CP)

Fentanyl pills are shown in a handout photo. (Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams/CP)

TORONTO – More than 700 doctors, nurses, harm reduction workers and academics are calling on Ontario to declare opioid overdoses and deaths an emergency, as British Columbia did last year.

The front-line workers delivered an open letter Monday to Premier Kathleen Wynne, saying limited resources and poor data are preventing them from responding properly to a disturbing and sustained increase in overdoses.

“The consequences have been clear: lives lost, families destroyed and harm reduction and healthcare worker burnout,” they write.

An emergency declaration would allow for increased funding to front-line harm reduction workers, more overdose prevention sites and opioid programs, they write.

In the first six months of last year, 412 Ontarians died of opioid overdoses — an 11 per cent increase from the previous year. That is currently the most recent provincial data available on opioid deaths.

After meeting with members of the group on Monday, Wynne said in a statement that the government will announce “significant additional resources and supports” in the coming days.

MORE: How fentanyl turned an ER doctor into an addict

“We agreed that what’s happening in Ontario is a public health crisis,” she said.

“That’s why I strongly reaffirmed our government’s commitment to combat this crisis with additional resources, and reassured the group that this is a top priority for me. I have committed that our government will work more closely with people living with addictions, their family members, front-line workers and volunteers. Their voices and expertise are essential.”

Health Minister Eric Hoskins has noted Ontario launched a strategy on opioid addiction and overdose last year, has provided funding for new front-line addiction and mental health workers and is distributing more than 6,500 kits with the overdose-reversing drug naloxone each month.

There are also supervised injection sites coming to Toronto and one to Ottawa, with temporary sanctioned and unsanctioned sites popping up in the meantime.

The front-line group was unable to quantify how much more funding is needed to address the crisis, but said it’s certainly in the millions and needs to come urgently.

“We’re leaving the responsibility of this crisis to people’s families and their friends and people who use drugs to save each other’s lives and it is not OK,” said harm reduction worker Zoe Dodd.

“It is hard to manage what’s going on and we are trying our best but it is time that the government step up and do something. We cannot afford to lose any more people and we are losing people at an alarming rate.”

RELATED: Despite overdose fears, opioid prescriptions rise in Ontario

Dr. Alexander Caudarella, an addiction physician, said the declaration of an emergency would also send a symbolic message “to the front-line workers that they’re not alone and will send a powerful message to those suffering with addiction, to those who use substances and to their families that their lives have value.”

B.C. declared a public health emergency in April 2016 after 201 overdose deaths were recorded in the first three months of that year, 64 of them involving fentanyl.

The Ontario NDP said it supports the front-line group’s call.

“The need for action is urgent and any further delays by the Wynne government are simply unacceptable,” health critic France Gelinas said in a statement.

Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown has called for Ontario’s Liberal government to spend at least 10 per cent of its advertising budget on an opioid and fentanyl awareness campaign, as well as release weekly overdose data and create a ministerial task force.

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