TORONTO — More than 600 Ontarians died from opioid overdoses in the first six months of last year, new numbers reveal, as overdose prevention sites await word on whether they can continue to operate in the province beyond Sunday.
Public Health Ontario statistics were quietly updated last week to show that 629 people in Ontario died from opioid-related causes from January to June of 2018. That is 80 more deaths than during the same period in 2017.
Data is also now available for the first nine months of 2018 for hospitalizations and emergency department visits.
There were 6,688 opioid-related emergency department visits in the province, up from 5,909 during the same time frame last year, and 1,544 hospitalizations, which is down from 1,623 from the same period last year.
In 2017 in total, 1,261 people died from an opioid overdose _ up from 867 people in 2016.
NDP health critic France Gelinas said under the previous Liberal government, the province often used to publicly announce when new information on opioid deaths and hospital visits was available.
“With this government, everything that has to do with mental health, with addiction, seems to be back into the dark age when it was taboo,” she said. “People need to know that there are people dying all the time, that we have very good prevention strategies in Ontario that are about to run out of funding again.”
Health Minister Christine Elliott is reviewing applications for 21 sites that will be established with $31 million in annual funding under a new overdose prevention site model planned by the government, to be called consumption treatment sites.
Existing overdose prevention sites could apply to continue to operate under the new model, and their licences had been set to expire on Jan. 31. The government then extended those licences to March 31 as the applications were still being reviewed.
It was expected that approved sites would transition in the spring to the new model that includes a focus on treatment and rehabilitation.
Harm reduction worker Zoe Dodd said it has been hard working month to month.
“You can’t just keep getting extensions,” she said. “It’s so stressful to be working in this environment of uncertainty.”
At a temporary Toronto site that was up and running for a year, 251 overdoses were reversed, Dodd said. In January and February alone this year, her overdose prevention site reversed 173 overdoses, Dodd said.
During last year’s election campaign, Premier Doug Ford said he was opposed to overdose prevention sites, but Elliott said the evidence demonstrated the sites are necessary, reducing drug-related deaths and lowering the rate of public drug use.
After she presented the findings of her review to the premier, they agreed that the services were important.