'Drowning in all this death': outreach workers want help to fight drug overdose 'emergency'

A sharp spike in drug overdoses in Toronto is renewing calls for action to combat what some say is worsening "public health emergency."

Toronto police are investigating 4 deaths and 20 overdoses since last Thursday

Matt Johnson displays a safe injection kits he hands out at the Queen West Community Health Centre. The clinic also distributes the nasal spray version of naloxone in an effort to save people from dying of an overdose. (Lorenda Reddekopp, CBC News)

A sharp spike in drug overdoses in Toronto is prompting new calls for action to combat what some say is a worsening "public health emergency."

Since last Thursday night, more than 20 drug overdoses have been reported in Toronto. Four of them were fatal.

Toronto police are investigating the overdoses and suspect the deaths may be linked to heroin laced with fentanyl. 

"I feel like we're just drowning in all this death around us, without the coordinated efforts and resources that are needed," Zoe Dodd, a harm reduction worker with the South Riverdale Community Health Centre, said Tuesday.

'We're just drowning in all this death," says harm reduction worker

6 years ago
Duration 0:56
Zoe Dodd is a harm reduction worker with the South Riverdale Community Health Centre. she discusses increased overdoses.

"We are in a public health emergency so we need to treat it like a public health emergency," she told CBC's Metro Morning.

Dodd believes that other health crises, such as a flu epidemic, would receive far more attention and resources from authorities. She said drug users are stigmatized and ignored.

"We don't care enough about the lives of people who use drugs. Let's be real. That's exactly what's happening here."

Pop-up injection sites?

For another Toronto outreach worker, the overdose spike is a sign that there's a need for proposed safe injection sites to be built faster, or even for temporary, pop-up sites where people can use drugs under supervision.

Matt Johnson, who co-ordinates harm reduction outreach at Queen West Community Health Centre, says he knows some of the people who overdosed. Many of those affected over the past few days live on the street, he says, including three who overdosed inside a downtown agency that works with the poor.

Toronto's first safe injection sites for drug users have been approved by the federal government, with the three locations expected to open this fall. But Johnson says they're needed now.

"We need the safe injection sites. We need them to have already been open," he said in an interview with CBC Toronto Monday. "We need them open now. No more waiting." 

Johnson believes the sites could have prevented some of the deaths over the weekend and suggests temporary pop-up or mobile sites be put in place while construction begins at the permanent locations.

'Now people are overdosing on their tester shot'

He says fears of fentanyl mean the advice he and his co-workers used to give drug users to stay safe doesn't work anymore. That includes the suggestion that users first try a "tester shot," a lesser dose than normal after they've bought a quantity of street drugs.

"Now people are overdosing on their tester shot," Johnson explains. 

With increased worries of overdose, some see naloxone as the answer. The drug, which is either injected or used as a nasal spray, counteracts the effects of an opioid overdose.

Johnson's office distributes naloxone kits to anyone who wants them.

'People start dropping, you just go in your pocket and bam, people will live'

Just outside the Queen West Health Centre, near Queen Street West and Bathurst Street, one man, Jay, who didn't want to give his last name, said he knew a couple of people who died recently, and planned to ask for one of the kits.

"At least that way, people start dropping, you just go in your pocket and bam, people will live," he explained matter-of-factly, saying around half his friends are drug users.

Jay, who did not want his last name used, told CBC Toronto he planned to ask for a kit containing naloxone to protect friends who are drug users. (CBC News)

"I'm trying not to have anyone die around me ... [If] everyone carries one of those things in their pocket, everything should be good."

Toronto police have no plans to carry naloxone

Currently in the city of Toronto, paramedics carry naloxone. There are plans for firefighters to carry them beginning in fall.

The Toronto Police Service has no plans for its officers to carry the drug.

"The paramedics are the best way to protect people in overdose situations," said police spokesperson Mark Pugash.

But Johnson, the outreach worker, would like to see naloxone made more available at agencies that work directly with drug users. But he also cautions against viewing the antidote as the only answer.

"[Naloxone] doesn't work if you're by yourself. You can't administer it to yourself when you're unconscious," he said.

"We can only tell them, 'Don't use alone.'"

With files from Metro Morning and Trevor Dunn