Construction on one of three safe injection sites in Toronto is set to begin next week, the city announced Friday, moving forward on a commitment to speed up the opening of the facilities.
The push to hasten the launch of the sites is part of a slate of measures the city announced this week to combat a recent spike in suspected opioid-related deaths.
Toronto's medical officer of health, Dr. Eileen de Villa, said work on the first site will start on Tuesday, with plans for it to open on an unspecified date in the fall.
"We know that adding these life-saving health services to our existing services will help ensure that people are not alone when they inject drugs and that medically trained staff are available to intervene if someone does overdose," said De Villa. "Overdose deaths are preventable deaths."
Many Canadian cities have grappled with drug overdose deaths in recent months. Vancouver recorded 25 deaths and nearly 600 overdose calls in June alone.
In Toronto, a string of recent overdose cases has drawn fresh attention to the issue.
Local police suspect there have been at least six overdose deaths in the city in the past week and believe the deadly opioid fentanyl may have played a role.
De Villa also noted that between this Wednesday and last, there were 94 visits to Toronto emergency departments for suspected overdoses.
"The issue is having a devastating impact on those who use drugs, their friends and family, our harm reduction and our health community, our first responders and many others, all of whom are working tirelessly to provide intervention and support for individuals in crisis," she said.
In addition to speeding up the safe injection sites, the city is ramping up its response to overdoses with wider distribution of the opioid overdose reversing drug naloxone to public health staff, community agencies and first responders.
All Toronto paramedics already carry naloxone kits, but the city said this week that all firefighters will have access to the antidote by the end of September. The city has also asked Toronto police to consider the targeted distribution of naloxone to some officers.
De Villa said Toronto Public Health has also distributed more than 1,000 naloxone kits to the public since January and is working with other agencies to gather and share overdose data as quickly as possible to help inform further strategies.
"It's clear that our current approach to drugs in this city and in this country doesn't seem to be having the desired impact," de Villa said, adding that the city's response to the crisis will come from a health approach.
"We need to work together and to actually put the health of our community first, rather than looking at this as an issue of criminal behaviour and/or an area for law enforcement."
Coun. Joe Mihevc, who is also chair of the city's board of health, said officials in Western Canada have been warning authorities in Toronto to be prepared for the impact of powerful opioids such as fentanyl, which has lead to numerous deaths in that part of the country over the past two years.
"We realize that the overdose crisis that has hit Toronto has a lot of people worried," Mihevc said. "But the first thing we want people to understand is that the city is on high alert with this."
He stressed the city is addressing the crisis as a public health issue and not a criminal justice issue.
Toronto Public Health's most recent preliminary data indicates 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.