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Staff Sergeant Shawn Harrison, of the Thunder Bay Police.David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

A growing opioid-overdose crisis in Thunder Bay is prompting the city’s police, firefighters and health officials to publicly call for greater help from the federal and provincial governments.

Northwestern Ontario has become a provincial epicentre of drug deaths – and the crisis is worsening. Preliminary data show 44 people likely died of opioid overdoses last year in the Thunder Bay region, a 42-per-cent increase from the year before, when there were 31 overdose deaths. The region had the highest per-capita rate of fatal opioid overdoses in the province in 2017.

“More support from the provincial and federal governments is the direction we need to move in as a municipality,” deputy fire chief Greg Hankkio said at a news conference Wednesday.

Beyond the plea, no specific asks were made of other levels of government. Health Canada spokeswoman Maryse Durette noted the latest federal budget included one-time emergency funding of $150-million for provinces and territories to improve access to treatment services. She added that federal funding is allocated based on the severity of the opioid crisis and the size of the province or territory.

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Opioids can be consumed in a number of ways including smoking, injecting, eating, and through patches. In 2018, Thunder Bay reported 44 Opioid related overdose deaths, up 42 percent from 2017.David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

“Canada is facing a national opioid crisis,” she said. “The growing number of overdoses and deaths caused by opioids, including fentanyl, is a public health emergency.”

David Jensen, a spokesman for the Ontario Ministry of Health, said the province has committed to new investments totalling $3.8-billion over 10 years to develop a “comprehensive and connected” mental health and addictions system.

Opioids, as with other illicit drugs, can be consumed through pills, snorting, smoking or injecting, a method that paramedics say is gaining traction in Thunder Bay.

“I would say most is injected,” said deputy chief Andrew Dillon of Superior North Emergency Medical Services.

This week, city officials also warned of an HIV outbreak due in part to the increased sharing of needles by drug users.

In a statement, the city’s district health unit said there have been eight new HIV diagnoses to date in 2019 with two more cases under investigation. In all of 2018, there were 11 new HIV diagnoses.

“Transmission is through sexual activity and sharing needles for injection drug use,” reads the warning from the Thunder Bay District Health Unit.

The city has distributed thousands of naloxone kits, an opioid overdose antidote, to pharmacists and harm-reduction workers. But ordinary citizens are increasingly administering naloxone to prevent people from dying.

The Thunder Bay Police Service said street gangs from Toronto and Ottawa have poured into Thunder Bay to sell drugs. Police Staff Sergeant Shawn Harrison said opioid deaths have extended to First Nations communities in Northwestern Ontario.

Cynthia Olsen, the drug-strategy co-ordinator for the City of Thunder Bay, said addressing the drug problem will take a sustained effort by layers of government officials that will have to span years.

“There’s no one silver bullet,” she said.

“Unfortunately, when prevention efforts are funded they are usually funded for very short periods of time,” she added. “In order for prevention efforts to take hold in a city or a country, they need to be invested in for very long term.”

More drug treatment and harm-reduction programs are desperately needed in the city, she added.

“At this moment people are dying and this is avoidable,” Ms. Olsen said, adding that “we need to have a conversation about where the country goes in terms of the toxic drug supply.”

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