The province set up a new insulated and heated tent in downtown Toronto's Moss Park on Thursday afternoon in an effort to winterize downtown Toronto's Moss Park pop-up supervised-injection site, which was facing closure due to cold weather.
The emergency retrofits come a day after Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins and Mayor John Tory called on the federal health minister to intervene. In a joint letter they urged the government to immediately approve a fourth supervised-injection site in downtown Toronto as the city continues to deal with escalating opioid overdoses.
The decision was made following an emotional interview on CBC Radio's Metro Morning, in which harm reduction worker Zoe Dodd blasted the slow government response to keep the site going and warned of "carnage" if more drug users are forced to use in isolation.
The ministry sent its emergency medical assistance team (EMAT) to the aid of the overdose prevention tent Thursday as its back-up plan to move the site indoors appears months away.
The team erected an "industrial military-calibre tent with proper insulation, installed proper heating, proper ventilation to improve conditions," Hoskins said, for volunteer harm reduction workers who warned plunging temperatures made their task more difficult.
"I've always said that the work that the harm reduction workers, the professionals at Moss Park, are doing is both necessary and professional and they're saving lives," Hoskins said on Metro Morning.
"They've got a very strong record of saving lives. So we need to support that every way we can."
Site saved nearly 2,000 people in 3 months
Toronto's first pop-up supervised-injection site opened mid-August after a spate of overdoses caused several deaths in the city.
The tent site has served nearly 2,000 people, said harm reduction worker Matt Johnson, noting volunteers have administered naloxone 36 times, saving 85 lives in the last three months.
Johnson added although some nights have already been so cold that drug users have struggled to find veins, some 30 people still go there to inject while double that go to the site to have someone watch over them as they smoke drugs.
"Just because winter comes, people don't stop using," he said.
Some 865 Ontarians died as a result of opioid overdoses last year, said Hoskins, and "we know that number is creeping higher this year — we're seeing more people in emergency rooms."
The plan to help the Moss Park pop-up site stay open is only temporary, while officials wait for the federal government to grant an exemption for a fourth supervised-injection site in downtown Toronto.
The province is requesting that the Fred Victor Centre be the location of the indoor site across the street from Moss Park.
But Coun. Joe Cressy, chair of the Toronto Drug Strategy, said people are continuing to die and the city shouldn't have to wait for the federal government.
"If the federal law isn't changed, then partners at the provincial and municipal level have an ethical obligation to ignore it," Cressy told Metro Morning.
But it might not need to come to that this time.
The health minister said he signed a funding letter for the Fred Victor Centre pledging $500,000 to operate the safe-injection site when approval is given. He is hopeful that the federal exemption could be granted within a number of days.