Toronto's Board of Health unanimously approved a recommendation Monday to call on Ontario's premier to declare the increase in opioid-related deaths and overdoses a provincial emergency, amid impassioned and sometimes even tearful pleas from harm reduction workers and drug users for more help.
The recommendation was one of several passed by the board at its meeting aimed at dealing with the increase in overdoses.
According to numbers from the Coroner's Office, 179 people died of accidental overdoses in 2016 in Toronto, up from 135 in 2015, the largest ever one-year increase in the city.
Coun. Joe Cressy, chair of Toronto's Drug Strategy Implementation Panel, says the situation has become even more dire, with someone dying almost every day in the city due to an overdose.
Harm reduction workers and volunteers, some of them drug users themselves, pleaded to the Board of Health to do more to save lives.
They say that at the pop-up supervised injection site in Moss Park, they've reversed more than 30 overdoses after less than 50 days of operation.
Olympia Trypis, 22, sobbed openly, telling board members: "I just hope someone will become a political hero and help us,"
Leon Alward says he volunteers at the Moss Park site and also had a near-death experience in 2016.
"My own son was the one who found me overdosed from what I thought was heroin but was actually fentanyl," he told the board.
'This is an emergency. No more data, no more talking'
Alward agrees with the committee's recommendation to the premier to call the opioid crisis an emergency: "This is an emergency. No more data, no more talking."
But a provincial emergency "is for events that are expected to be of a time-limited nature," according to a statement from Ontario's Ministry of Health and Long-term Care.
"The opioid crisis is not finite. It is not short term. It has been and is continuing to affect our communities."
The statement also adds that the Ontario government has invested $222 million over three years to fight the opioid crisis.
Cressy is frustrated, saying that funding still can't be accessed by the city.
"Is it a crisis, is it an emergency, is it an epidemic? It's all of the above and we need the dollars and cents to flow."
Harm reduction worker Zoe Dodd is frustrated by the health ministry's decision not to declare the situation an emergency.
"That's right, there's no end in sight if you don't do anything," Dodd told Board of Health members. "There's no end in sight if you don't enact the things you need to do in an emergency."
The board also voted to have the Medical Officer of Health investigate whether more supervised injection sites are needed, in addition to the three already approved and set to open later this year.
It also recommended the Medical Officer of Health analyze public health advice regarding the decriminalization of drugs, something harm reduction workers want, saying it would reduce deaths.