Ontario forms opioid emergency task force to address ongoing crisis

The province will create an emergency task force to help address the ongoing opioid crisis, the minister of health announced Wednesday.

Group will include harm-reduction workers, those who have experienced addiction

Ontario's Minister of Health Dr. Eric Hoskins, right, and Dr. David Williams, the province's chief medical officer of health, announce the new opioid emergency task force at Queen's Park on Wed., Oct. 4, 2017. (Mike Crawley/CBC)

The province will create an emergency task force to help address the ongoing opioid crisis, the minister of health announced Wednesday.

The opioid task force, which will operate out of the health ministry's emergency operations centre, will include front-line harm reduction workers, emergency responders, mental health and addiction professionals, public health experts, other provincial ministries and municipal representatives, health-care groups and people who live with addiction.

The group will "provide government with the critical information that we need to tackle this public health emergency effectively and appropriately," Health Minister Eric Hoskins said Wednesday at Queen's Park.

The task force will also offer guidance on a targeted public education campaign about the risks associated with opioid use and how to protect against the risk of overdose and dependency. 

But first, the province will provide all public health units with updated education materials so that every resident has access to the same information about opioid use and its risks. The province will also work with pharmacists to ensure they are getting information to patients each time they pick up an opioid prescription.

'It needs to start immediately'

Hoskins and Premier Kathleen Wynne visited the city's pop-up safe injection site at Moss Park Tuesday evening. They arrived around 8:30 p.m. and stayed for about 90 minutes, according to harm-reduction worker Zoe Dodd.

Dodd said while the task force has been in the works for some time, Hoskins and Wynne met with drugs users at the site and found out first hand what they need "to keep themselves alive."

Front-line workers such as herself have been pushing for the task force, she told CBC News on Wednesday, particularly to co-ordinate province-wide efforts to deal with the opioid crisis and to address various issues that communities across Ontario are facing.

"But it needs to start this week. It needs to start immediately," she said. "It needs to get going and doing that work."

However, she questioned the efficacy of public health campaigns, including having pharmacists and doctors talking to patients.

"The idea that it's prescription drugs killing people is baffling me," she said. "What the minister and what the premier saw last night was not people using prescription drugs, but actually bootleg fentanyl."

It's overdose prevention that's needed most, she said. That includes a safer drug supply, increased access to opioid substitution therapy and prescription heroin and dilaudid. 

"And then let's look at the root causes of what's really happening here and address those, as well," Dodd said. "A public education campaign doesn't help to alleviate poverty or help people with their trauma or help people who are homeless."

'There should be no wrong door'

The task force builds on an announcement from the province in late August to invest some $222 million over three years to address opioid addiction. That money is to go toward improving access to harm-reduction services and addiction treatment, among other measures.

At that time, Ontario's chief coroner released updated figures on opioid-related deaths. Dr. Dirk Huyer said there were a total of 865 opioid deaths in the province in 2016, a 19 per cent increase from the previous year.

On Wednesday, Hoskins addressed those struggling with dependency. 

"I have said this before and I will continue to say it: the lives of drug users and people living with addiction matter," he said.

"You are valued and you are important and you are not alone. You deserve high quality care that is dignified and compassionate. When you seek help there should be no wrong door."

Toronto firefighters to carry anti-overdose drug

Also on Wednesday, the Toronto Fire Service announced that as of today, all fire trucks will carry naloxone, the opioid overdose antidote. Over the summer, the TFS said that only some trucks would be equipped with the drug sometime this fall. Wednesday's announcement expanded on that pledge, saying the drug will be on all trucks for use by trained firefighters.

"The administration of naloxone by trained TFS staff will enhance the level of service TFS provides to the public," Fire Chief Matthew Pegg said in a statement.

"Acknowledging the urgent public health crisis across Canada and the marked increase in opioid-related emergencies in Ontario, TFS, in alignment with the current Tiered Response protocols, will enhance service delivery through the administration of naloxone."

Pegg's statement noted that providing naloxone to first responders and other community-service providers was just one of the recommendations contained in the Medical Officer of Health's report, "Toronto Overdose Action Plan: Prevention and Response." After council endorsed that report last March, the Toronto Board of Health asked the Ontario Ministry of Health to get naloxone out to those stakeholders.

"Access to emergency pre-hospital care, including the administration of naloxone, plays an important role in the city's drug strategy, which is based on the integrated components of prevention, harm reduction, treatment and enforcement," the TFS statement said Wednesday.

The TFS medical director, a physician at Sunnybrook, will oversee the firefighters' use of naloxone "through a physician reviewed set of medical directives."

Just late last month, the city's Board of Health unanimously approved a recommendation to call on Ontario's premier to declare the opioid crisis a provincial emergency. At the time, Coun. Joe Cressy, chair of Toronto's Drug Strategy Implementation Panel, said the situation has become dire, with someone dying almost every day in the city due to an overdose.

Front-line workers said that a pop-up supervised injection site in Moss Park reversed more than 30 overdoses after less than 50 days in operation. Three other supervised injection sites, which are sanctioned and approved by the city, are set to open later this year.

With files from Katherine Brulotte and Lorenda Reddekopp