Ontario's new-ish top doctor called for a "rejuvenation" of the province's overdose strategy in the face of a worsening crisis.
"It saddens me deeply, of the ongoing deaths of younger people in all of our communities across Ontario. It's very near and dear to me as an investigating coroner, as a family physician, emerg physician, and now as a public health doctor," Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore, responding to a question from QP Briefing in his first remarks on the crisis in his role. “I do think it needs a rejuvenation of our efforts across Ontario."
The overdose crisis in Ontario, like many areas, has dramatically worsened over years. The problem has spiked during the pandemic for many reasons, including the normal drug supply routes being cut off, resulting in more toxic local street drugs; and more people using alone, meaning no one is around to use naloxone or call 911 in case of an overdose.
Moore said he'd like to see the province "double down" on a variety of strategies, including consumption and treatment sites, opioid agonist therapies, naloxone distribution and rapid access addiction medicine (RAAM) clinics.
"I am very aware of its devastation to families [on a] very deep and personal level. And I just want to assure you, I will be fully committed to responding to this threat on an ongoing basis, once we can get COVID under control," he said.
Moore said he has formed a task force with Chief Coroner Dr. Dirk Huyer to look at potential policy and health system changes.
"I have started working. I want to assure families who have had loss and death of their children or family members that we are working on this behind the scenes," he said.
For instance, Moore said he's open to supporting the decriminalization of drugs on the federal level.
"I think it's a policy direction that I would like to review and potentially endorse or support," he said, noting that he'll work with counterparts like Toronto Chief Medical Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, who has called for decriminalization.
Moore's predecessor, Dr. David Williams, was heavily criticized by advocates for his hesitancy and unwillingness to support measures seen as critical to solving the crisis.
When QP Briefing asked him about the issue last year he declined to take stances on measures like increasing the number of supervised consumption sites; allowing people who use drugs to access a regulated, legal supply; updating Ontario's drug formulary to include high-dose opioid therapy; and decriminalizing drugs for personal use.
Zoë Dodd, a harm reduction worker in Toronto, said step one for Ontario should be reinstating the Opioid Emergency Task Force, which hasn't been called to meet since the Ford government took office.
She was a member of that task force with Moore, where she said he was known for supporting some progressive measures.
"He was a really big supporter of the supervised consumption site" in Kingston when he was chief medical officer for the region, she said. "The people in Kingston said he was pretty decent."
The government should also lift its cap of 21 consumption and treatment services sites across Ontario, Dodd said.
Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Michael Tibollo has said he's struggled to get municipalities on board with the idea, which Dodd said was no reason not to move forward with the idea.
"I think municipalities do want them. I think the problem is that you can't just open a site without funding," she said, noting that Barrie has asked for one. "And also, who wants them? The people that are needing the service want them. The people who are working in the industry want them. That's what matters. They need them."
Less-intensive overdose prevention sites would be a big help as well, she said, adding that the harm reduction workforce is burning out, much like nurses during the pandemic.
“It's just been devastating," she said. "I’ve never lost so many people I've worked with, and friends and colleagues, in one year.”