Canada's Overdose Crisis Is "Dwarfing" COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way most people go about their daily lives. But for the already vulnerable population of substance users, the rules and restrictions of COVID-19 have heightened the risks they experience, according to drug policy experts and health advocates.
“The overdose crisis is actually dwarfing COVID-19,” said Scott Bernstein, director of policy at the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition. “We’re doing a good job managing COVID from a public health perspective (but) we’re doing a terrible job managing the overdose crisis from a public health perspective.”
The restrictions on resources and harm reduction services during the pandemic have placed drug users further at risk, experts say.
Jürgen Rehm, a senior scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, said the physical distancing guidelines imposed to control the spread of COVID-19, as well as other measures, have indirectly increased the risk of opioid-related overdoses because of the disruptions to normal life.
“We have seen this lead to less supply, higher prices for illegal drugs, coupled with less possibilities to earn money and the closure of several consumption and treatment services sites,” said Rehm.
The changes have resulted in drug users taking more risks as they deal with new dealers and new drugs, according to the scientist.
“COVID-19 has assaulted the drug supply chain,” said Caitlin Shane, a drug policy lawyer at Pivot Legal Society in Vancouver. “So it’s really not surprising that since the onset of COVID-19 we’ve seen a spike in fatal overdoses in certain (Canadian) cities.”
Shane added that drug users’ housing and usual sources of income are “in jeopardy,” and the strain of the pandemic, “on top of all of that right now, is spectacularly burdensome.”
“Across the country, our number of overdoses has increased over the last three months,” said Police Chief Mike Serr of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.
This sentiment is echoed by reports across Ontario, where experts say the opioid epidemic is getting worse.
“In the 18 weeks since the COVID-19-related state of emergency was declared for Ontario on March 17, 2020, and physical distancing measures were put in place, 16 of those weeks (or 90 per cent) have had a significantly higher number of suspected drug-related deaths than expected,” said David Jensen, a spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of Health.
To compare those figures with pre-pandemic numbers from early 2020, only four of the first 11 weeks of this year had more drug-related deaths than usual.
Jensen said the need for physical distancing has resulted in more people using drugs alone, “which increases the risk of overdose related morbidity and mortality.”
“Additionally, it has been more difficult for people who use drugs to access community-based services due to closure or reduced hours, impacting access to safe spaces that provide opportunities for hygiene, food access, social connectedness, and other practical supports,” said Jensen.
Without these essential harm reduction services, a spike in overdoses had been expected by experts who are calling for a decriminalization of simple possession for illicit drugs earlier this month in response to the worsening opioid epidemic in Canada.
A nationwide discussion on decriminalizing hard drugs is needed as opioid-related deaths spike across Canada amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada’s top doctor said recently.
The call from chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam comes as parts of the country record increased overdose fatalities in the months since the novel coronavirus struck Canada.
“Canadians should be seized with this particular crisis, which can actually happen to anyone and could also have increased risks right now for people who may be isolating at home,” Tam said during a news conference Friday, adding that the crisis is “escalating as we speak.”
Tam stressed that decriminalization isn’t the only option, adding increasing access to a safer supply of drugs and building more supervised consumption sites are among other critical steps needed to reduce opioid deaths.
By Ananya Vaghela
By Jason Herring