Over the past year, the COVID-19 health crisis has obscured Canada’s other growing pandemic of opioid overdoses and overdose-related deaths.
In 2019, following efforts focused on creating overdose prevention sites, methadone clinics and support services for individuals struggling with addiction, the number of deaths from opioid-related overdoses decreased by 13%. However, it has surged sharply since March in most provinces, notably in Ontario and British Columbia.
In Ontario, deaths linked to opioid use have risen by nearly 40% in the first months after COVID-19 hit the province. According to a new report released by the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network (ODPRN), in Ontario, 695 people died of confirmed or suspected opioid-related causes in the first 3.5 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, which corresponds to an increase of 38% compared to the same period of time before the pandemic began.
“If those numbers continue, we expect there will be about 2,200 opioid-related deaths across the province of Ontario this year, which is much higher than we’ve seen in any previous year,” said Dr. Tara Gomes, an epidemiologist and chief investigator at the ODPRN in her interview with CBC News.
According to health experts, the sharp increase in opioid deaths can be attributed to a range of factors linked to the virus, including Canada’s ongoing border shutdown with the U.S., which has disrupted the supply chain of illicit drugs, increasing the chances of drug contamination with toxic additives by dealers looking to stretch their products. Another factor affecting the increase has been the reduction in support and services for individuals struggling with drug addiction.
“Since COVID, we’ve seen things get much worse. The level of adulteration of the drug supply has increased,” said Dr. Alexis Crabtree, a resident physician in public health and preventive medicine at the University of British Columbia.
Specifically, due to prevention measures, there has been reduced access to services ranging from medical visits to supervised consumption sites. In addition, physical distancing rules at overdose prevention sites could result in bottlenecks, deterring users who need immediate access or who do not want to wait in line.
“Service providers where possible are going to online provision of service,” said Dr. Mark Haden, an adjunct professor at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health.
B.C. has recorded more than 100 “illicit toxicity deaths” each month from March to August, with the death toll reaching 175 in May, June and July, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada last month.
According to many leading health experts, decriminalizing illicit drugs in Canada could help to reduce drug users’ reliance on street drugs, thereby freeing up resources for public health that would otherwise go to law enforcement. Health authorities across Canada have urged for augmentation of harm reduction services, as well as prioritizing drug users’ safety as part of any new COVID-19 measures or policies.