TORONTO — The number of opioid-related deaths and emergency department visits continued to rise in Ontario in the first three months of this year, the latest government data shows.

Public Health Ontario said 435 people died from opioid overdoses between January and March — a 40 per cent increase from the same period in 2018 when 307 deaths were reported.

There were 3,420 emergency department visits due to opioid overdoses from April to June, the agency said, nearly a 50 per cent increase over the same period in 2018.

The latest numbers come as no surprise to Zoe Dodd, a harm reduction worker with the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society.

“People on the ground were just responding to overdoses constantly,” she said. “We knew there was an increase in deaths in the (harm reduction) community.”

New numbers released earlier this week from the federal government show close to 14,000 Canadians have been killed by opioids over the last four years. Public health officials have blamed the country’s illegal drug supply for the rising number of opioid overdoses and deaths.

In Ontario, nearly 1,500 people died from opioid-related overdoses in 2018.

Ontario’s chief coroner said the data underscores the severity of the overdose problem across Ontario and there are a number of factors contributing to the increase including the tainted drug supply.

“We have a continued serious problem,” Dirk Huyer said. “The tragedy, unfortunately, continues.”

In June, the province’s chief medical officer of health warned about an increase in the presence of carfentanil — an analogue of the synthetic opioid fentanyl — in street drugs. Dr. David Williams said at the time that the chief coroner had determined carfentanil had directly contributed to 142 deaths between Jan. 1 and April 29, 2019.

Earlier this week, Ontario said it would join a national class-action lawsuit against opioid manufacturers in a bid to recoup costs the government alleges can be directly attributed to the overdose crisis.

The class action, launched by British Columbia in the summer — other provinces have since joined the suit — alleges that drugmakers falsely marketed opioids as less addictive than other pain drugs, triggering a crisis.

A spokeswoman for Health Minister Christine Elliott said the government is implementing a number of new policies and programs that focus on treatment, harm reduction and data collection.

“We are also connecting people living with addictions to treatment and rehabilitation supports by funding 16 consumption and treatment services sites in communities with high need across the province,” Hayley Chazan said in a statement. “(The) sites not only save lives by preventing overdose-related deaths, they also connect people to primary care, treatment and rehabilitation.”

Bhutila Karpoche, the NDP critic for mental health and addictions, said the government should recall an expert task force created by the previous Liberal government so that it can receive expert advice on the issue.

“They have to declare a public health emergency and start listening to harm reduction workers on the ground,” she said.

This report by the Canadian Press was first published Dec. 12, 2019.

Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press

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