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New strategies must be implemented to deal with opioid crisis: Ontario science table

A wide variety of strategies must be implemented across Ontario to tackle the opioid crisis that has worsened significantly during the pandemic, according to the province's science table.
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A wide variety of strategies must be implemented across Ontario to tackle the opioid crisis that has worsened significantly during the pandemic, according to the province's science table.

In its latest brief published Wednesday, the group of experts said these strategies are needed to deal with the significant increase in fatal overdoses since the novel coronavirus appeared in Ontario in 2020.

"Proposed strategies to address opioid-related harm during the COVID-19 pandemic include supporting continuity and access to addiction and harm reduction services, incorporating these services in high-risk settings, such as shelters and encampments, addressing the volatile drug supply through adaptive harm reduction strategies, improving access to telemedicine and remote care services," the science table wrote in the brief. 

Rates of fatal opioid overdoses increased by 60 per cent in Ontario since the pandemic hit the province in full force in March 2020, the group noted. Rates of emergency medical services for suspected opioid overdoses increased by 60 per cent in that same time frame.

"Fentanyl, sedatives, and stimulants are also more commonly found in post-mortem toxicology reports of persons with fatal opioid overdoses, pointing to an increasingly volatile supply (unpredictable potency and composition) of unregulated opioids and other drugs," the science table wrote.

The homeless, the poor, rural and northern communities and Black, Indigenous and people of colour have been disproportionately affected by the opioid crisis, it said.

An estimated 6,819 people have died from opioid overdoses in Ontario between 2016 and 2020.

The science table said the province, service providers, researchers and those with lived experience should be collaborating on the issue.

There are multiple reasons behind the deepening opioid crisis.

"Factors that may have contributed to rising rates of opioid-related harm during the COVID-19 pandemic include pandemic-related stress, social isolation, and mental illness, which in turn resulted in changes in drug use behaviours; border and travel restrictions that created a more erratic and volatile unregulated drug supply; and reduced accessibility of addiction, mental health, and harm reduction services," the table said.

The table also said there are gaps in provincial data related to those most affected by the crisis, including racialized and marginalized communities.

"Efforts to collect rates of opioid-related harms for specific subgroups, through ongoing investment in the Ontario opioid data infrastructure and collaboration with community stakeholders and individuals with lived experience, are required to examine the effectiveness of interventions in these populations," the table said.

Alexandra Hilkene, a spokeswoman for Health Minister Christine Elliott, said the Ontario government is committed to addressing the opioid crisis and to supporting people with an opioid-use disorder in getting the help they need. 

Hilkene said in an email that the province has allocated more than $30 million for up to 21 Consumption and Treatment Services sites in key regions across Ontario.

She said these have been used by thousands of Ontarians since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Hilkene also noted an announcement in July in which the government said it would spend $32.7 million a year in new funding for targeted addictions services and supports, including treatment and care for opioid-use disorder. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 9, 2021. 

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press