Backgrounder: Support for people at risk of overdose during COVID-19 in Ontario

Backgrounder

September 2020

The Government of Canada is taking action to ensure communities across Canada have the tools and support they need to keep people at risk of overdose safe during the outbreak. This includes nearly $9.5 million in funding for four safer supply projects for people with opioid use disorder in Ontario. These projects will provide pharmaceutical-grade medication as an alternative to the toxic illegal supply.

Funding is provided through the Substance Use and Addictions Program (SUAP), which supports evidence-informed and innovative initiatives across a range of interventions—health promotion, prevention, harm reduction and treatment—targeting a broad range of legal and illegal substances.

Additionally, three temporary Urgent Public Health Needs Sites (UPHNS), also known as overdose prevention sites, have been authorized and are currently operating in Ottawa, Toronto, and Kingston. The sites will help people who use drugs to stay safe and limit their contact with others by following physical distancing and isolation measures.

Together, these measures will help keep people at risk of overdose safe during the outbreak.  

Expanding access to a safer drug supply for those at risk in Ontario

“Safer Opioid Supply Program,” London InterCommunity Health Centre – London, Ontario
More than $6.5 million over 50 months has been provided to this long-term pilot project. This initiative helps reduce harms related to the toxic illegal drug supply by providing prescribed opioids to patients with opioid use disorder during the pandemic and beyond. Patients have access to a range of health and social services, such as housing, social connection and food security, to promote health, stability and wellness. The project will also contribute valuable evidence to support the development of best practices for safer supply programs in Canada.

The Ottawa and Toronto initiatives listed below are short-term initiatives specifically intended to respond immediately to the toxic illegal drug supply worsened by the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Safer Supply Ottawa,” Pathways to Recovery – Ottawa, Ontario
Approximately $1.4 million over 10 months has been provided to expand upon existing Ottawa community-based services to prescribe pharmaceutical opioids for those at greatest risk of overdose and death. Along with reducing the risk of overdose and other drug-related harms, this project also aims to improve the physical and mental health and well-being of people who use drugs, and reduce involvement of people who use drugs in the criminal justice system.

“Safer Opioid Supply Program,” Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre – Toronto, Ontario
More than $582,000 over 10 months has been provided to help people during the outbreak who are experiencing severe opioid use disorder access pharmaceutical-grade medications and increase engagement with healthcare and social services to foster better health outcomes. The project features a harm reduction drop-in program, offering supports, evidence-based information, supplies, food, and referrals to other service providers.

“Downtown East Collaborative Safer Opioid Supply,” South Riverdale Community Health Centre – Toronto, Ontario
Approximately $1 million over 10 months has been provided to people with opioid use disorder who are at a greater risk of overdose and other harms related to the toxic illegal drug supply. They may also have experienced barriers accessing existing health and social services, especially during the COVID-19 outbreak. The organization will provide pharmaceutical-grade opioids, help connect people experiencing opioid use disorder to the broader system of primary and specialist care, addiction and mental health services, and other social supports.

Accommodating people who use drugs during COVID-19

In April 2020, Health Canada proactively issued six-month class exemptions under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to all provinces and territories to establish new temporary Urgent Public Health Need Sites (UPHNS). Due to the worsening of the overdose crisis during COVID-19, Health Canada granted an extension for UPHNS to all provinces and territories until September 30, 2021. These sites would be set up within existing supervised consumption sites, shelters or other temporary sites, as needed, to help people stay safe from overdose and limit their contact with others by following physical distancing and isolation measures during the COVID-19 outbreak.

In provinces that have not yet chosen to use the exemption, organizations, such as the ones below, have applied directly to Health Canada for authorization to operate an Urgent Public Health Need Site.

Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre – Toronto, Ontario
Authorized to operate an Urgent Public Health Need Site until
September 30, 2020 at the COVID-19 isolation shelter in Etobicoke. The site offers supervised injection, oral, and intranasal consumption, as well as permits peer assistance, and provides harm reduction supplies and education. Health Canada is currently reviewing their application to continue offering UPHNS services.

Ottawa Inner City Health – Ottawa, Ontario
Authorized to operate an Urgent Public Health Need Site until September 30, 2020 at the Routhier COVID-19 isolation shelter. The site offers supervised injection, oral, and intranasal consumption, as well as permits peer assistance, and provides harm reduction supplies and education. Health Canada is currently reviewing their application to continue offering UPHNS services.

Street Health Centre – Kingston, Ontario
Authorized to operate an Urgent Public Health Need Site until August 31, 2021, in a city-run drop-in centre. The site offers supervised injection, oral and intranasal consumption, as well as permits peer assistance and provides harm reduction supplies and education.

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