Officials in Belleville, Ont. say they want the province to step up after 17 suspected drug overdoses in the city’s downtown core over the last 24 hours.
“This is a very unfortunate event. It’s not the first occurrence and it won’t be the last,” Mayor Neil Ellis said in Feb. 7 news release.
“Like many municipalities across the province and country, we have a very serious drug, addictions and mental health crisis in our city. We need support from the provincial government on how we move forward with this crisis.”
Ellis, who noted that this crisis is not isolated to his municipality of 55,000 residents, but is part of a “provincial and federal issue,” said Belleville wants to be part of a larger plan, one that focuses both on harm reduction as well as rehabilitation.
The mayor added that in the meantime, police and emergency services in his municipality are “working around the clock” with an “immense amount of municipal resources going toward this issue on a daily basis.”
Late Tuesday afternoon, local police advised residents and visitors to “exercise caution and avoid unnecessary travel” to the downtown area after receiving multiple calls for suspected drug overdoses in the span of less than an hour.
In a news release, Belleville Police Service (BPS) said that emergency officials were responding to 13 overdose incidents, adding that this incident prompted “the need for increased vigilance and awareness in the affected areas.”
“The safety and well-being of our community members and emergency responders remain top priority and the Belleville Police Service is urging individuals to avoid areas where emergency personnel are actively engaged in aiding those in need,” police said.
A number of roads in the area were closed, but have since reopened.
Chief Carl Bowker of Hastings-Quinte Paramedic Services told CP24.com that they also responded to 13 suspected opioid-related calls on Tuesday afternoon, but within a two-and-a-half hour timespan.
He said that the majority of these calls were for “unconscious patients,” noting that nine were transported to hospital on a “high priority.”
There were no reported fatalities, Bowker said in a written statement.
“The unexpected surge in call volume briefly overwhelmed responding paramedics, police and fire and there were road closures to ensure ambulance and fire could respond unimpeded,” he said, noting late last year they experienced a “similar surge with fentanyl laced with GHB which does not respond to Narcan,” which is also is known as naloxone.
Last November, emergency responders in Belleville were called to 90 suspected overdoses in the span of a week prompting officials to declare a “community crisis.”
Bowker told CP24.com that there continued to be a couple of other opioid-related calls on Tuesday evening and one on Wednesday morning, however he said that it was “nothing like the volume that was experienced during that short time period.”
During a follow-up news conference on Wednesday, the City of Belleville said that in the end emergency personnel responded to a total of 17 suspected overdose calls over the last 24 hours, 14 of which occurred between 2 and 4 p.m. yesterday.
Police Chief Mike Callaghan said that Tuesday’s cluster of OD calls “resulted in enormous pressure on our emergency services as a whole.”
“While we are fortunate that there were no casualties during this incident, we know this is an issue that will only continue to grow in our community and nation-wide,” he said, adding that while they lobby for solutions, BPS has called in its partners from emergency services, public health and Quinte Health to “work together to develop operational scenarios for addressing similar events to ensure our respective departments are equipped to handle these situations in the most efficient and effective way possible moving forward.”
The OPP’s East Region division, in a Jan. 7 post on X, also warned the public of “multiple overdoses in the Belleville area and other parts of eastern Ontario” this week.
“If you or someone you know may be experiencing an overdose, don’t hesitate – call 911,” they said, reminding people that they are protected under the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act.
Multiple overdoses in the #Belleville area and other parts of eastern Ontario this week. If you or someone you know may be experiencing an overdose, don’t hesitate – call 911. The Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act can protect you. Learn more at https://t.co/3tQC3N8PcV pic.twitter.com/Owpq47grDK
— OPP East Region (@OPP_ER) February 7, 2024
In a written statement provided to CP24.com, a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Health said the province is “supporting the mental health and wellbeing of all Ontarians” in myriad ways, pointing to its Roadmap to Wellness, a $3.8 billion investment over 10 years to “build a modern, world-class mental health and addictions system.”
Hannah Jensen noted that since 2019, the provincial government has invested $525 million in addiction services and supports, including mobile crisis response teams, safe beds (short-term accommodations for persons in crisis brought to hospitals), Opioid Agonist Therapy, eight new youth wellness hubs, and Rapid Access Addiction Medicine clinics.
She also said that in response to the pandemic’s impact on substance use, Ontario is implementing the Addictions Recovery Fund, a “one-time investment of $90 million over three years to boost capacity in addictions services, adding 500 new addiction treatment beds.”
Jensen further noted that in the 2023/2024 budget there is a five per cent increase in base funding for mental health and addictions organizations, which includes nearly $35 million directed to Belleville.
“The Ministry of Health also provides funding to public health units (part of their global allocation) for supplies distribution and harm reduction program enhancement including early warning systems, naloxone, local drug strategy,” she said.
Several of the suspected overdoses on Tuesday happened at a drop-in centre called the Bridge Integrated Care Hub. The program is operated by John Howard Society at Bridge Street United Church.
The low-barrier centre, which offers essential supports, social services, and primary health care for people experiencing homelessness, said that this latest spate of ODs has deeply affected everyone in the community.
“The impact of these toxic drug poisonings is overwhelming for those who were victims of the drug poisoning, the staﬀ of the drop-in, our emergency services, and the people who witnessed the events,” said co-chair Sheila Braidek in a release.
“We appreciate the support of our whole community while we navigate our way through the next few days and over the long term.”
Fellow co-chair JJ Cormier said for now they’re focused on ensuring everyone who visits the “important, respected and life-saving space” is “safe and supported.”
Both Braidek and Cormier said that this crisis is due to the toxic drug supply, but is exacerbated by the lack of adequate health and social infrastructure for vulnerable people as well as harm reduction strategies across the city, and appropriate facilities, services, and funding for those requiring help.
“It is important to understand that using drugs is open not a choice, it’s an addiction – an illness like any other requiring care,” Cormier, the executive director of John Howard Society Belleville & District, said.
Braidek, who is also executive director of Belleville Quinte West Community Health Centre, noted that while they can’t control the toxic drug supply, actions can be taken to mitigate it.
“Our response needs to be guided by empathy, care and evidence. We are going to need the help of all levels of government, all health and social services and the community at large to ensure we can realize our collective goal of a truly integrated hub of care in an appropriate facility,” she said.
“The ongoing toxic drug crisis is a big part of why an integrated response is desperately needed. Until then, the doors of the drop-in are open to those who need it.”
CONTAMINATED DRUG SUPPLY TO BLAME, SAYS HEALTH UNIT
Dr. Ethan Toumishey, Hastings Prince Edward Public Health’s Medical Officer of Health, said that the increasing rates of drug poisonings that are being seen in the region are due to the “contaminated drug supply” that is affecting multiple communities across Ontario.
“We recognize the risk and rate of drug poisoning is a concern for community members, partners, and people who use drugs,” he said in a statement, adding that they continue to monitor information related to drug poisonings and are working with community partners to prepare for and respond to them.
Toumishey said that it’s important to recognize that people who use drugs may be dealing with addiction and have no other choice but to consume unregulated substances and this issue must be approached “with compassion and an aim to identify and implement long term solutions for the community.”
“We are committed to working with community partners this spring to finalize a Community Drug Strategy, which will be implemented over the next three to five years,” he said.
“This strategy aims to identify and implement collaborative solutions for the most pressing issues related to unregulated substances within our community.”
Toumishey also credited the emergency responders, hospital and community support staff who are providing immediate assistance to those experiencing drug poisoning, while work is underway on longer-term initiatives to address issues related to substance use and addiction in the region.
CP24.com has also contacted the Premier’s office for a response.