TORONTO -- Ontario will offer naloxone to police and firefighters across the province and can now approve safe injection sites on its own, it announced Thursday as new figures showed a dramatic spike in opioid-related deaths.
There were 336 opioid-related deaths in the province from May to July -- an increase of 68 per cent from the same time period last year, Chief Coroner Dirk Huyer said.
"It's incredibly significant and an incredibly large number," he said. "This is a phenomenally big issue that's occurring in Ontario and across Canada."
As well, the province said Thursday that there were 2,449 emergency department visits from July to September related to opioid overdoses -- an increase of 115 per cent increase from a year earlier.
The coroner's office changed how it collects that data in May, allowing it to access the numbers more quickly, so it is still working on determining how many people died from opioids between January and April, Huyer said. Last year 865 people in Ontario died due to opioids.
"The data demonstrates the urgent need for continued and heightened action to address this growing public health emergency," said Health Minister Eric Hoskins.
"While we talk about this data we cannot forget for even one second that each and every one of these numbers is a person."
Huyer also said Ontario saw a continued increase in fentanyl being found in cases of opioid deaths. During those three months, fentanyl was detected in 67 per cent of the cases, compared with 41 per cent in all of 2016 and 19 per cent in 2015.
Of the fentanyl-related death, 91 per cent were accidental and 55 per cent had cocaine detected, too, Huyer said.
"It's tough to answer why that is," he said. "Is that people mixing, or is that because what they purchased or what they were given was in fact contaminated?"
Naloxone, the overdose-reversing medication, will be offered to all 61 police services across the province and all 447 municipal fire departments, the government announced.
"We know that having naloxone in the hands of first responders who may be working with at-risk populations is a valuable tool that saves lives," said Community Safety Minister Marie-France Lalonde.
The federal government granted Ontario an exemption Thursday under federal law to allow it to approve and fund temporary overdose prevention sites.
"These overdose prevention sites are one step in what has been and will continue to be a concerted and urgent response to this crisis," federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor said in a statement.
Ottawa announced last month that provinces experiencing public health emergencies could request such a measure. Hoskins said the temporary sites that have popped up have saved a lot of lives and are deserving of the government's support.
"These life-saving necessary, health services -- overdose prevention sites -- support some of the most vulnerable and marginalized individuals in our province and they do so in a way that is stigma-free, equitable and easily accessible," Hoskins said.
They are just some of the steps Ontario will have to take to tackle this crisis, said Chief Medical Officer of Health, David Williams.
"We didn't get here overnight," he said. "We're not going to get out of it very quickly. We've got a lot of work ahead of us."
Ontario has committed $280 million over three years to fight the opioid crisis, including distributing naloxone through emergency departments, pharmacies and correctional facilities, expanding access to addictions programs and improving data collection and monitoring.