City reports spike in overdose deaths amid COVID-19 service cuts

The city agency in charge of Toronto’s overdose action plan is reporting a spike in overdose-related calls to Toronto Paramedic Services.

On March 31, Toronto paramedics were called to 25 overdoses, including one fatality, according to an internal email sent to service agencies by the Toronto Drug Strategy.

“These increases in overdoses show the impact of an increasingly toxic drug supply while we are also trying to address the community spread of COVID-19,” says the email.

It advises service agencies to advise their clients using drugs to “take precautions to protect from COVID-19,” including using at a supervised consumption site, if possible.

There are currently nine supervised injection sites in the city but hours vary. And several have had to close temporarily and re-open for fewer hours because of the pandemic.

The problem, says Toronto Board of Health chair Joe Cressy, is the lack of personal protection equipment for staff, which is a provincially-mandated responsibility. He says the city has been offering its “diminishing stock” of protective equipment to keep services open.

But the other issue is safe supply. The city appealed to the federal government before the COVID-19 outbreak for approval to supply users with prescription heroin through social services, but that request was denied. 

Cressy says another request has since been made “because it’s not only a tainted illicit drug supply problem that we have.” He says the street supply of opioids are increasingly being poisoned.

Self-isolating requirements of the COVID-19 pandemic and a reduction of services is exacerbating the city’s response to the overdose crisis, forcing many of its clients to use alone.

The city is advising drug users not to use alone, but to be sure to avoid passing the virus by keeping a distance. For those who must use alone, the city is recommending calling someone on the phone and to stay on the phone while using, or to call the Overdose Prevention Line (1-888-853-8542) that has been set up by the province.

Services to check drugs bought on the street are also available at The Works, South Riverdale Community Health Centre and Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre (Queen West site).

As well, free naloxone kits are available at pharmacies, but while naloxone will reverse the effects of opioid overdose, it won’t work for other drugs like benzodiazepines.


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