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.”
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.”
‘Laced drug’ to blame, says minister
A spokesperson for Ontario Minister of Health Sylvia Jones said in an emailed statement Thursday afternoon “the overdoses [were] caused by a laced drug in the region” and officials were working to limit its spread.
While harm reduction workers in Ottawa and Toronto have discovered animal tranquillizers in local drugs, Medical Officer of Health for Hastings Prince Edward Public Health (HPEPH) Dr. Ethan Toumishey had said Wednesday it was too soon to determine exactly what caused Belleville’s surge in overdoses.
Toumishey 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.
All in a Day12:23Police say emergency services in Belleville responded to 14 overdose incidents on Tuesday
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 problem is too big for Belleville to tackle on its own and called 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
On Thursday morning, the mayor declared an addiction, mental health and homelessness emergency under provincial law, and extended the call for help to the federal government.
In an interview with CBC News, Ellis said emergency services and hospitals in the city are currently “at capacity.”
“When you have as many [overdoses] as we did in the last 24 hours, there doesn’t seem to be an end to it,” he said.
The city needs more mental health counselling, doctors, nurse practitioners and detox centres, but “we don’t have any capital or any facilities that that we can turn to,” said Ellis, a Liberal MP from 2015 to 2021.
“It’s time for us to take action or come up with a plan, but it’s all three levels of government that are going to have to do this.”
WATCH | The mayor explains his declaration:
Less than an hour before this declaration, a spokesperson for Ontario’s health minister sent CBC a statement that pointed to the province’s $3.8-billion Roadmap to Wellness mental health and addictions plan.
The spokesperson 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.
In a follow-up statement, they said the province’s chief medical officer of health and other provincial resources are working with Belleville’s health unit and checking with nearby units.