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Council not ready to declare opioids a public health emergency

Health officials to speak at council next week about possible ramifications
(stock photo)

Councillors have stopped short of declaring a public health emergency to deal with the city's opioid crisis.

Instead, at last night's general committee meeting, they asked the city's fire and emergency services officials to investigate what making that move could actually mean in declaring an emergency, a measure more often used in matters of natural disasters. 

Although it's ultimately up to the province to decide what constitutes an emergency, the motion, which was tabled by Couns. Natalie Harris and Keenan Aylwin, could trigger funding for front-line work such as treatment, prevention, education and harm reduction. It would also address root causes of addiction, including poverty, housing, unemployment, mental illness and trauma. 

"This is new ground," Harris said. "We could be on the forefront for what this actually looks like."

Barrie's opioid problem is among the worst in the province. In 2017, there were 81 opioid-related deaths in Simcoe Muskoka, including 36 in Barrie. 

There was also a recent spike in overdoses seen at Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre. In the first 10 days of February, there were 28 visits to the Barrie hospital’s emergency department for suspected overdoses, roughly twice the recent average locally.

"What I want is more funding for people to help us solve the crisis," said Mayor Jeff Lehman. 

But the mayor also says he wants to see where any potential money would be best directed toward. 

"If the RAAM clinics are working, great. Let's have five of them that are open 24/7," Lehman added.  

Councillors said they didn't want declaring a public health emergency to be seen as merely symbolic. 

"Making the declaration doesn't solve the problem," said Coun. Jim Harris, adding British Columbia declared a similar emergency several years ago and deaths continue to climb. 

"We need to do whatever we can to prevent further deaths," Aylwin said. "These are friends, family and neighbours who are dying."

With the province taking the lead on health care and sweeping changes expected to the ministry of health from the sitting Progressive Conservatives, it was mentioned around the council table last night that one notable absence in the information package was a stance from local MPPs Andrea Khanjin and Doug Downey, who are both members of the sitting government.

"The province has the primary responsibility for health care, they are giving the dollars that should be being spent on the overdose crisis in Barrie," said Lehman. "We do need those two MPPs to be fierce advocates."

While some councillors said there was a sense of urgency around the opioid issue, others said they wanted more information before making a final decision on declaring a public health emergency. 

A delegation from the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, which last May developed the Simcoe Muskoka Opioid Strategy (SMOS), is scheduled to speak at city council next Monday. 

Coun. Barry Ward said he's looking forward to hearing what the medical officer of health has to say. 

"If we declare an emergency, it's more than sending a message. There are some consequences with what we have to do," he said. "Unfortunately, it would not be the city itself that would be doing a lot of the work. It would be done by the county, which handles the social services, and the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit.

"It's easy for us to declare and then say to the county and the health unit, now do the work," Ward added. 

Coun. Robert Thomson also called for more information, adding the city needs to have a plan in place first. 

"This whole thing is premature," he said. "If they come tomorrow with a bag full of money, we have no plan."

Aylwin said the health unit's SMOS approach is that plan.

Councillors agreed that it would take a co-ordinated, multi-layered approach from several different groups. 

"If we don't do this in a planned and measured way, we might actually make it worse," said Coun. Jim Harris.

If ratified at next Monday's city council meeting, Monday night's motion also calls for written responses within three weeks from the provincial and federal ministers of health. 

"I'd like them on the record," said Lehman, adding he'd "make a big deal" of it if the deadline passed without response.