Hamilton staff report says state of emergency won't 'open doors' to aid city's opioid crisis

Efforts by a Hamilton, Ont. councillor to try to have a state of emergency implemented as a response to the city’s opioid crisis was put on hold again following Monday’s board of health meeting.

Ward 9 Coun. Brad Clark pitched the motion in mid-January in the hopes of getting the province to notice and potentially launch a response by opening up funding resources.

Since his ask, neighbouring Niagara Region went ahead with its own declaration, also adding homelessness and mental health to their declaration in late February.

Clark said he was “struggling” with the fact Niagara was able to declare its emergency “for the same reasons” he insisted upon months ago.

“I’m trying to get more funding, more resources for homeless and for substance abuse,” said Clark.

“I visited a shelter last week, and they told me they had another death in one of their shelters. We call it a crisis, but it’s not changing.”

Councillors voted to receive an opioid response staff report from February that says such a declaration wouldn’t “open doors” to additional provincial funding since the action is meant to respond to an immediate need and not a systemic health issue.

Mayor Andrea Horwath directed Clark to a section of the staff report which states “an official declaration would not lead to the provision of funds.”

“That’s the crux of the problem,” Horwath said.

“I think the Emergency Management Civil Protection Act (EMCPA) is legislation we could make. We could make the declaration and say it’s an emergency, but does it bring us the money? That’s what’s at issue here.”

Paramedics responded to 814 incidents related to suspected opioid overdoses in 2022, according to city data, compared with 430 such incidents in 2017.

Between 2016 and 2021 Hamilton experienced a 245-per cent increase in opioid-related overdoses and a 229-per cent increase in opioid-related deaths.

From January to October 2022, there were 139 confirmed or probable opioid-related deaths in the city.

Opioid deaths have increased in Ontario by more than 100 per cent since 2017 and took a marked jump when the pandemic hit in March 2020.

The opioid-related death rate is 45 per cent greater in Hamilton compared with Ontario.

Hamilton’s medical officer of health has been exploring the possibility of declaring a state of emergency as per Clark’s previous request earlier this year.

Dr. Elizabeth Richardson explained to councillors that a declaration under the EMCPA’s rules “wouldn’t be the funding route for this issue” suggesting acquisition of funds based on 3 per cent of the municipal tax levy would not apply.

Richardson, who professed she was not an expert on emergency management, said the 3 per cent wouldn’t be sufficient anyways considering the level the city’s opiod crisis is at.

“That dollar figure is a much bigger … figure. In order for us to address it, it requires action by multiple parties at the federal and provincial level.” Richardson explained.

“This is why this council has made requests for there to be working groups set up at the provincial level to bring together all the ministries.”

Ward 4 councillor Tammy Hwang suggested revisiting the issue Thursday as a “massive” report coming to the Emergency and Community Services committee will address chronic homelessness issues she says is tied to the opioid crisis.

“It may be a better storytelling on how we can advocate further to the provincial government on what the actual cost that is downloaded to the municipalities through this opioid crisis that is in partnership with chronic homelessness,” Hwang said.

Clark said he would have conversations with a few other councillors to see if a state of emergency should be declared anyways to get the attention of Queen’s Park.

He agreed the Emergency and Community Services may be the place to have the “bigger debate” since the issues do “mesh together rather nicely.”

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