Opioid overdoses are an ongoing “crisis,” Toronto’s medical officer of health says, as preliminary data released Friday shows emergency room visits and paramedic calls for service due to opioid poisoning continued to surge last year, while overdose deaths remain high.
In a news release issued Friday, the city’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Eilleen de Villa, described the deaths as “preventable losses” to members of the community.
“The overdose crisis continues to be an urgent public health issue in Toronto,” she said in a statement.
De Villa added that “addressing the drug poisoning crisis of this size and scale requires resources and action from all levels of government.”
Data released Friday shows that in 2021, paramedics in the city responded to 6,005 non-fatal calls and 357 fatal calls linked to opioid use, which is a 65 per cent increase compared to 2020.
Ontario Ministry of Health data also shows that emergency department visits for opioid use in the fall of 2021 were the highest seen in that time period since 2017. There were 3,947 emergency department visits for opioid poisoning last year.
Preliminary data from the Office of the Chief Coroner shows 511 opioid-related deaths in Toronto in 2021, which is a slight decrease from 539 in 2020 — though the city says as the coroner’s office completes investigations, it is expected that confirmed overdose deaths in the city last year will increase.
Still, the preliminary 2021 numbers are a marked increase from previous years, amounting to a 74 per cent increase from 2019 and a 273 per cent increase from 2015.
Toronto Public Health also notes that the city’s drug-checking service has detected increasingly “toxic and unpredictable contaminants” in the city’s unregulated drug supply, and the agency has issued a number of alerts on new drug trends in recent months.
In a statement, Mayor John Tory said that any life lost to drug overdose is preventable and unacceptable.
“Every death from an overdose is a tragedy that leaves families, loved ones and friends devastated. No one is immune from this crisis,” Tory said. “We cannot understate or shy away from the terrible impact of these deaths.”
Tory said the city is implementing harm reduction programs to help save lives, but said both the province and the federal government need to help implement more robust and expanded healthcare and addiction treatment options.
“We know from our health experts that this is what is needed and it is time that both governments work together with us to get this done to help save the lives of residents in Toronto and across our country,” he said.
Late last year, TPH voted to ask the federal government to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of illegal drugs in the city to help tackle the worsening opioid overdose crisis.