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Belleville declares addiction emergency after latest overdose surge

Mike Juby says some of his friends were among the people who overdosed in downtown Belleville, Ont., earlier this week. (Dan Taekema/CBC - image credit)
Mike Juby says some of his friends were among the people who overdosed in downtown Belleville, Ont., earlier this week. (Dan Taekema/CBC - image credit)

Mike Juby was outside Bridge Street United Church in Belleville, Ont., on Tuesday afternoon when people suddenly started dropping to the sidewalk all around him.

There were "ambulances left, right and centre" as paramedics loaded people onto stretchers and rushed them to hospital, he recalled.

"It was ugly," Juby said. "They're all my friends. I know every one of them. It's a tough, tough go."

Emergency officials in Belleville say 14 people overdosed in the eastern Ontario city's core between 2 and 4 p.m. Tuesday.

At one point police shut down a section of road and asked residents to avoid going downtown, describing the situation as an "overdose emergency." None of the overdoses proved fatal.

The city said Thursday morning it's had 23 overdoses since 2 p.m. Tuesday and it is declaring a state of emergency over the situation.

Tuesday's cluster of overdoses happened along Bridge Street E., surrounding the church where a drop-in centre run by the John Howard Society of Belleville offers food, showers and laundry service for homeless and other vulnerable residents.

The past 24 hours have had a "huge impact" on those why rely on and work at the site, according to J.J. Cormier, the organization's executive director.

"There were five individuals who were outside, walking on the sidewalk, and all five of them collapsed at the exact same time," Cormier said.

"These people are … our family, and we're their family."

J.J. Cormier is the executive director of the John Howard Society of Belleville. She says the overdoses have been difficult for staff and the clients who rely on the drop-in service her organization runs at Bridge Street United Church.
J.J. Cormier is the executive director of the John Howard Society of Belleville. She says the overdoses have been difficult for staff and the clients who rely on the drop-in service her organization runs at Bridge Street United Church.

J.J. Cormier is the executive director of the John Howard Society of Belleville. She says the overdoses have been difficult for staff and the clients who rely on the drop-in service her organization runs at Bridge Street United Church. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Juby said watching so many people he knows overdose at the same time was frustrating and scary.

"It's disappointing. It hurts," he said.

"I don't know where it's coming from, but I hope it stops."

Cause not yet known

On Wednesday, the city held a news conference bringing together emergency, city and health officials.

While harm reduction workers in Ottawa and Toronto have discovered animal tranquillizers in local drugs, the medical officer of health for Hastings Prince Edward Public Health (HPEPH) said it's too soon to determine exactly what caused Belleville's surge in overdoses.

"It's too early for this particular event to know exactly what might be in the drug supply, what would it be having these particular effects, but this is part of an overall trend that is severely affecting the community," said Dr. Ethan Toumishey.

The doctor added that while the spike in cases was "particularly high" this week, the problem isn't new.

"It continues to raise the alarm, but … the alarm has been ringing for a while now," Toumishey said.

Leaders in Belleville sounded that alarm in November during an earlier news conference amid another spate of overdose calls.

On Tuesday, Mayor Neil Ellis said the city faces a "very serious drug problem, addictions and mental health crisis."

He and police Chief Mike Callaghan said the situation pushed local emergency resources to the brink and the problem is too big for Belleville to tackle on its own.

They're calling on the provincial government for a plan to help.

"We need funds … human resources, capital resources to get in front of this," Ellis said. "I don't see anything on the horizon."

State of emergency

The city declared an addiction, mental health and homelessness emergency Thursday morning, according to a news release. It extended the call for help to the federal government.

"Our emergency services, health care system and municipal resources are being stretched to the very limits and we are
close to a breaking point," Ellis wrote.

"We need serious action and support from senior level government to deal with this crisis."

Less than an hour before this declaration, a spokesperson for Ontario Minister of Health Sylvia Jones sent CBC a statement that pointed to the province's $3.8-billion Roadmap to Wellnessmental health and addictions plan.

They said Belleville-specific investments include nearly $35 million for mental health and addiction organizations and nearly $2 million to pair health-care workers with police on distress calls.