COVID-19 is worsening opioid crisis in Canada

Feb 16, 2021

According to a recent report entitled “Opioid and Stimulant related Harms in Canada” released by the Public Health Agency of Canada, the COVID-19 outbreak has been worsening the ongoing public health crisis of opioid overdoses and death. Moreover, the report shows that individuals who use illicit substances, such as opioids, cocaine, and methamphetamine, have a number of increased risks, with some Canadian regions reporting higher rates of fatal overdoses and other harms.

This new report analyzed data on deaths, hospitalizations and Emergency Medical Services responses associated with use of opioids and/or stimulants between January 2016 and June 2020.

Specifically, the report shows there have been 17,602 apparent opioid toxicity deaths between January 2016 and June 2020, with 1,628 apparent opioid toxicity deaths occurring between April and June 2020, which represents the highest quarterly count since the onset of national surveillance in 2016. These statistics also represent a 58% increase compared to January to March 2020 (1,029 deaths) and a 54% increase from the same time frame in 2019 (1,059 deaths).

The results of the report demonstrate that Western Canada has been most impacted by the opioid crisis, but increases in opioid and stimulant related harms have been observed across the country.

At least five provinces and territories have observed record-breaking numbers of deaths in April to June 2020, while 86% of all opioid toxicity deaths occurred in British Columbia, Alberta or Ontario between January and June 2020.

It has been revealed that opioid-related deaths were most common among males and individuals aged 20 to 49 years, while fentanyl and fentanyl analogues have been major contributors to the ongoing crisis. Specifically, 75% of accidental apparent opioid toxicity deaths involved fentanyl in 2020, and 99% of the fentanyl detected in opioid toxicity deaths was non-pharmaceutical.

The report also shows that there have been 21,824 opioid-related and 9,869 stimulant-related poisoning hospitalizations occurred from January 2016 to June 2020 in Canada (excluding Quebec).

Finally, the report also evaluated the prevailing types of opioids and stimulants found to be associated with illicit drug-related harms from January to June 2020. According to the results, 29% of opioid-related poisoning hospitalizations involved fentanyl or fentanyl analogues, while 57% of stimulant-related poisoning hospitalizations involved cocaine and 58% involved other psychostimulants. In addition, 29% of opioid-related poisoning hospitalizations involved non-opioid polysubstance use, while 65% of stimulant-related poisoning hospitalizations involved non-stimulant polysubstance use.

The report concludes that recognizing harms related to opioids, stimulants, and other substances needs to be examined beyond the numbers of overdoses and deaths, while a broader understanding of harms and substances is needed to create an appropriate response to the crisis.