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What should Toronto Public Health's priorities be? Now's your chance to weigh in

Toronto Public Health is working on a 'deeper data analysis' to help the public health unit track patterns and trends and what has changed since the pandemic hit the city in March. It is working on an updated analysis of how COVID-19 has affected different populations, according to such factors as race and income. Officials will share an update soon. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press - image credit)

As Toronto faces atoxic drug crisis and rise in homelessness, the city's public health agency is working to develop a new strategic plan that will guide it through the next four years.

The strategic plan will lay out key priorities from 2024 to 2028 and help guide public health decision-making, according to a Toronto Public Health (TPBH) news release . The previous plan was supposed to end in 2019, but was extended due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The development of the new plan is being led by Coun. Alejandra Bravo (Ward 9). She  says the plan is more than just a provincial requirement — it's a way to decide what success looks like for the agency.

"With the really significant crises of the opioid crisis, the lack of affordable housing and the growth in (the) unhoused population, it's a good opportunity to really take a look at ourselves as a city and see where it is that we want to head toward," Bravo said.

"It starts with a better and a bigger vision."

In-person public consultation starts at city hall on Monday at 9:30 a.m., which is when the strategic plan development committee will be meeting.

Residents can register to speak at that meeting or attend a drop-in session from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. There is also a survey that will be open online until March 17.

The development of the plan is being led by Coun. Alejandra Bravo, who said the plan is more than just a provincial requirement — it's a way to decide what success looks like for the agency.  (Stacey Janzer/CBC)

The city will also be releasing a guide with steps on how people can hold their own strategic plan conversations in a space that works better for them than city hall. People can then submit group feedback over email.

It's important for the plan to extend past the next municipal election in 2026, said Coun. Chris Moise (Ward 13), who chairs the board of health.

"Things tend to start and stop at election time," he said. "But the world doesn't stop as a result of it."

Drug crisis needs to be a priority, advocate says

Part of what will inform the strategy's development is Toronto'spopulation health profile, a 2023 report that provides a snapshot of the city's health status. The profile says Overdose deaths reached a record-high 591 in 2021, according to the profile.

It notes that all of those deaths were preventable — stigma and discrimination prevented people from accessing services.

The most recently available data on opioid toxicity deaths comes from the provincial coroner's office, who reported 228 in the first two quarters of 2023. In comparison, there were 301 deaths in all of 2019.

Zoë Dodd, co-organizer of the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society, hopes the city's toxic drug crisis gets specific mention in the plan. But she says she worries that the loudest voices at the public consultations will get the most say.

"People who would be affected by the toxic drug death crisis, those who'd be at risk of dying, those who are poor, those who are living on the streets, those living in encampments. Those people are so dehumanized that their voices aren't taken at the same level as everybody else's," Dodd said.

Zoë Dodd, a co-organizer with the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society, hopes the city's toxic drug crisis is specifically mentioned in the plan.  (Martin Trainor/CBC)

She says whatever direction the strategic planning goes, the people who are struggling the most need to be prioritized.

Dodd wants to see supervised consumption sites accessible to everyone and a focus on data-driven solutions. She says that could include providing 24-hour supervised consumption services in places where the most overdoses are happening. There are currently 10 safe consumption sites in the city.

Dodd also wants to see better treatment for those living in encampments, who have limited access to health care and could experience discrimination in healthcare settings.

Addiction services are a provincial responsibility, said Moise. Of the city's existing consumption sites, TPH says six are provincially funded. Moise says TPH advocates for provincial support.

"But at the end of the day it falls on our doorsteps as a city," he said.