08/03/2017 10:43 EDT | Updated 08/03/2017 11:01 EDT

Toronto lays out opioid plan after emergency meeting on spike in deaths

Toronto is speeding up the opening of three supervised injection sites and asking local police to consider having some officers carry the opioid overdose antidote naloxone as it responds to a spike in suspected opioid-related deaths in the city.

The measures were among several laid out Thursday after the city's mayor held an emergency meeting with first responders, public health officials and some city councillors.

"These are unimaginable tragedies and, make no mistake, an overdose death is a preventable death," Mayor John Tory said in a statement. "Today, I asked our first responders to ensure we are doing everything as fast as fast as possible to implement Toronto's overdose action plan."

Many Canadian cities have grappled with drug overdose deaths in recent months.

The most notable is likely Vancouver, which has recorded 25 deaths and nearly 600 overdose calls in June alone. The opioid crisis claimed 935 lives in the British Columbia last year.

In Toronto, the issue has been thrust under the spotlight recently after the overdose deaths of four people between Thursday and Sunday last week. Two young women also died in an apartment in the city's west end Tuesday in what paramedics called suspected overdoses.

While the cause of the incidents was not confirmed in most cases, police said they believed fentanyl may have played a role. The potent drug can be fatal, even in trace amounts that may have been laced into other drugs.

The city already has a drug action plan, released in March, but on Thursday it announced ways to ramp up its efforts.

Three supervised injection sites coming to central Toronto, which had been expected sometime in the fall, will open sooner, the city said. The sites allow people to use illicit drugs under the supervision of a medical professional.

The city has also asked Toronto police to consider the targeted distribution of naloxone to some officers.

The city further plans to step up training for paramedics and firefighters in areas flagged as having the highest number of calls for service, and will also increase public education on overdoses.

The city is also mulling emergency bulk purchases of naloxone as part of its efforts for quicker distribution to necessary personnel.

Coun. Joe Cressy, chair of the Toronto Drug Strategy Implementation Panel, said the city will provide naloxone kits to all firefighters by the end of the September, adding that paramedics already have access to the opioid overdose antidote.

City officials are also in talks with Health Canada about providing drug testing services so users can determine if drugs are laced with fentanyl or other substances.

"In the city of Toronto we've had an overdose crisis for a decade," Cressy said. "Unfortunately, this crisis is now escalating rapidly."

Coun. Joe Mihevc, who is chair of the board of heath, said there is a lot of work be to be done to deal with the growing opioid problem in Toronto.

"The public should rest assured, however, that the city’s divisions and agencies are seized of the issue and are doing everything possible to be of assistance and save lives," he said.  

The city said it is also committing to better data sharing about overdose information and tracking whether naloxone has been used at calls where paramedics have been dispatched.

Toronto Public Health’s most recent data indicates that there were 87 opioid-related deaths in the city in the first six months of 2016, and there were 135 opioid-related deaths in 2015.