As the Ontario government reviews whether it should continue supporting supervised drug-use and overdose prevention sites, it has ordered a halt to the opening of any new temporary facilities to combat the opioid crisis.
According to a letter sent to the province’s health units late on Friday, the freeze on new overdose-prevention sites will remain in place as Health Minister Christine Elliott leads a review into the evidence supporting the opening of a number of harm-reduction sites across Ontario over the past year.
The Health Ministry would not say how many sites were affected by the freeze or where they were. The temporary sites were authorized by the previous Liberal government earlier this year as the province grappled with an opioid epidemic that saw more than 1,200 overdose deaths in 2017.
“The minister has been clear that she is undertaking an evidence-based review of the overdose prevention and supervised consumption site models to ensure that any continuation of these services introduce people into rehabilitation,” said Heather Watt, Ms. Elliott’s chief of staff, in a statement.
“She expects this review to conclude in short order and will be making a recommendation on how to proceed,” Ms. Watt added. The Health Minister was not available for comment.
Overdose-prevention sites are temporary facilities that open for three to six months to provide supervised drug-use services, clean drug supplies and naloxone, an opioid antidote that reverses the effects of an overdose. Supervised drug-use sites are more permanent locations approved by the federal government after a longer application process.
Friday’s freeze, which applies to all overdose-prevention sites approved by the province but not yet open, will halt the opening of a new facility in Toronto, the city’s public health agency has confirmed. The agency could not say when it was supposed to open or where, referring questions to the province.
“It is our understanding that at this time, the decision is to pause one overdose-prevention site in Toronto,” Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, said in a statement. She said the facilities should be part of the approach to the overdose crisis.
“The scientific literature, along with the experiences from other jurisdictions and our own local ones have shown that supervised injection services and overdose prevention sites provide many health benefits, including reversing overdoses and saving lives,” Dr. de Villa said.
Premier Doug Ford said he was “dead against” supervised drug-use and overdose-prevention sites while campaigning in the spring. At the time, he said the province should focus on drug rehabilitation instead of harm reduction. The Premier’s office has said that despite Mr. Ford’s personal feelings on supervised drug-use sites, he and Ms. Elliott will listen to health-care experts while deciding on the future of the facilities.
David Juurlink, the head of clinical pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Toronto, said no government serious about addressing Ontario’s opioid crisis would turn away from the overdose-prevention sites.
“It’s crazy to halt new overdose prevention sites," Dr. Juurlink said. "These places save lives, connect people to addiction care, reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis C, and save the health system money. We need more of these sites, not fewer.”
Zoe Dodd, a lead organizer of the Toronto Harm Reduction Alliance, which opened an unsanctioned site in a trailer in Toronto’s Moss Park, said the rookie Tory government is playing politics when people are dying.
“We’re in a public health emergency," she said, “and the government’s focus on reviewing evidence of something we know can prevent overdoses and save lives is alarming.”