Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a significant increase in rates of opioid-related harms across North America, particularly involving fatal overdoses, which have also disproportionately impacted marginalized and racialized populations.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, fentanyl has become the leading cause of overdose deaths in the U.S., along with other synthetic opioids. In Canada, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) also states that fentanyl is the leading cause of opioid-related deaths. The number of overdose deaths has reached a new record high in the U.S. at 96,779 from March 2020 to March 2021 over the course of the pandemic, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Furthermore, the CDC has reported a 38.4% increase in synthetic opioid deaths from June 2019 to May 2020.
Since fentanyl is approximately 20 to 40 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine, it is a potent depressant of the central nervous system and respiratory function, significantly increasing the risk of overdose and death.
A fatal dose of fentanyl is small enough to fit on the tip of a pencil, said a recent public safety alert from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Moreover, illicit drugs are increasingly becoming adulterated with fentanyl, further increasing the number of overdose deaths.
The amount of fentanyl seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection had increased by 51.45% in the first 8 months of 2021 compared to 2020, according to data released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“The COVID travel restrictions hindered some aspects of land border drug trafficking, as there was less traffic and more time could be spent examining travellers, which increased drug seizures, but with people staying home instead of going to work, there was an increased demand for drugs,” said Matthew Dyman, CBP public affairs officer in his interview with USA TODAY.
“As fentanyl is in powder or pill form and highly potent, small amounts smuggled can still be profitable. Smaller amounts mean there are more ways in which it can be concealed in smuggling attempts,” he added.
Health experts in Canada and U.S. have urged the government to focus on strategies such as facilitating continuity and access to addiction and harm reduction services and addressing the volatile drug supply through adaptive harm reduction strategies during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“We see with other major events people are feeling traumatized and under stress,” said Dr. Andrew Saxon, a member of the Council on Addiction Psychiatry at the American Psychiatric Association in his interview with USA TODAY. “An easy and natural way to cope would be to take a substance, even though it usually makes it worst in the long-run.”