Prescription pills containing oxycodone and acetaminophen are pictured in this June 20, 2012 photo. Pandemic exacerbates opioid crisis, as overdoses rise and services fade. The COVID-19 crisis has overshadowed an equally dark pandemic of opioid overdoses, which have risen sharply since March as the border closure and limited access to services raise fatal risks for drug users. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy

Prescription pills containing oxycodone and acetaminophen are pictured in this June 20, 2012 photo. Pandemic exacerbates opioid crisis, as overdoses rise and services fade. The COVID-19 crisis has overshadowed an equally dark pandemic of opioid overdoses, which have risen sharply since March as the border closure and limited access to services raise fatal risks for drug users. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy

Pandemic aggravates opioid crisis as overdoses rise and services fall out of reach

British Columbia saw more than 100 ‘illicit toxicity deaths’ each month between March and August

The COVID-19 crisis has overshadowed an equally dark pandemic of opioid overdoses, which have risen sharply since March as the border closure and limited access to services raise fatal risks for drug users.

Jurisdictions across the country have reported an increase in overdose deaths tied to opioids, a stark reversal of the 13 per cent decline in fatal opioid overdoses between 2018 and 2019.

British Columbia saw more than 100 “illicit toxicity deaths” each month between March and August, with the death toll breaching 175 in May, June and July, according to numbers compiled by the Public Health Agency of Canada last month.

The 181 deaths in June were a 138 per cent increase from the 76 fatalities in the same period a year earlier.

The situation is no better in Ontario, where an estimated 50 to 80 people per week are dying of overdoses, according to the chief coroner’s office.

The figures are up by 35 to 40 per cent year over year since the onset of the pandemic.

“Canadians should be seized with this particular crisis,” said chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam last month, given it is “escalating as we speak.”

The deadly spike is attributable to a range of factors linked to the virus, experts say.

Canada’s ongoing border shutdown has disrupted the supply chain of illicit drugs, making substances more ripe for contamination with toxic additives by dealers looking to stretch their products.

“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.

Health precautions have narrowed access to services ranging from doctor visits to supervised consumption sites.

Physical distancing at overdose prevention sites can result in bottlenecks, deterring users who need immediate access or who simply don’t want to stand in line in the cold.

“Service providers where possible are going to online provision of service,” said Mark Haden, an adjunct professor at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health.

“If you want to have a conversation with your doctor, Zoom is often the first choice. And homeless people don’t have access to Zoom.”

The social isolation of life under pandemic restrictions can also breed new users or heavier substance abuse.

“The more connection you have with people who care about you, the less likely you are to develop an addiction,” Haden said. “And right now we’re disconnecting.”

Pandemic protocols at social housing facilities may restrict visitors, further increasing the risk of an overdose if no one is nearby to spot one in progress.

For some, the drastic action taken by governments across the country to combat COVID-19 offers an example of health-care responsiveness, but for users it drives home the seeming indifference of authorities to their plight, which far predates the pandemic.

“People have been very hurt by seeing how quickly the government can react to a public health emergency when it chooses to do so,” said Crabtree.

“People who use drugs and their allies have been really devastated to see that comparison.”

In the short term, experts are urging expanded access to prescribed opioids via safer-supply programs.

In August, the federal health minister sent a letter urging her provincial and territorial counterparts to make regulated pharmaceutical options — safe supplies — available for drug users.

READ MORE: Victoria police seize fentanyl potent enough to kill more than half of Vancouver Island

A study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in August showed that few overdoses involved people with prescribed opioids such as methadone and buprenorphine in their system, which Crabtree — the lead author — said should make doctors feel more comfortable prescribing them.

Another option is to declare the overdose crisis a public health emergency, a step that B.C. took in 2017, laying the groundwork for improved access to treatment and recovery services and broader use of overdose-reversing drugs such as naloxone.

It has also strengthened understanding of the epidemic through health surveillance, though more activists, allies and drug users themselves should be brought to the table, Crabtree said.

“They have knowledge that public health and policy-makers just don’t have.”

On a larger scale, decriminalizing drugs could keep users from being driven underground and free up resources for public health that would otherwise go to law enforcement.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has backed that notion. She called on the B.C. government to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs in a 2019 report, saying the province “cannot wait for action at the federal level.”

“As people become more involved with the criminal justice system, they become more criminal,” Haden said.

“Jail is crime school in the same way that Harvard Law is upper-crust training school … you learn some stuff, you’re constantly told who you are, and you make connections.

“Ending drug prohibition would stop that process,” he said.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Coronavirusopioid crisisopioids

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

FILE – A COVID-19 vaccine being prepared. (Olivia Sullivan/Sound Publishing)
B.C. seniors 80 years and older to get COVID vaccine details over next 2 weeks: Henry

Province is expanding vaccine workforce as officials ramp up age-based rollout

Chris Paulson of Burns Lake took a quick selfie with a lynx over the weekend of Feb. 20-22, 2021, after the wild cat was found eating some of his chickens. (Chris Paulson/Facebook)
VIDEO: Burns Lake man grabs lynx by scruff after chickens attacked

‘Let’s see the damage you did, buddy,’ Chris Paulson says to the wild cat

Northern Health has declared a COVID-19 outbreak at Brucejack mine, 65 km north of Stewart on Feb. 11, 2021. (Pretivm Photo)
Northern Health has declared a COVID-19 outbreak at Brucejack Mine, 65 kilometres north of Stewart on Feb. 11, 2021. (Pretivm Photo)
Northern Health reports 20 more COVID-19 cases in outbreak at Brucejack Mine

So far, 42 people have tested positive, nine cases are active and self-isolating onsite

Fisheries and Oceans Canada released it's 2021 Pacific Herring Integrated Fisheries Management Plan Feb. 19. (File photo)
Northern herring opportunities kept to a minimum

2021 management plan caps Prince Rupert fishery at 5 per cent

A collaborative genomic research project is underway to map the movements of 118 Northwest sockeye populations to better inform management decisions on at-risk stocks. (File photo)
Genomic study tracks 118 Northwest B.C. sockeye populations

Development of new tool will be used to help harvesters target healthy groups

Dr. Bonnie Henry talk about the next steps in B.C.'s COVID-19 Immunization Plan during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, January 22, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
456 new COVID-19 cases in B.C., 2 deaths

Since January 2020, 78,278 have tested positive for the novel coronavirus in B.C.

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)
Vaccinating essential workers before seniors in B.C. could save lives: experts

A new study says the switch could also save up to $230 million in provincial health-care costs

The late Michael Gregory, 57, is accused of sexually exploiting six junior high students between 1999 and 2005. (Pixabay)
Former Alberta teacher accused of sexually assaulting students found dead in B.C.

Mounties say Michael Gregory’s death has been deemed ‘non-suspicious’

According to a new poll, a majority of Canadians want to see illicit drugs decriminalized. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Majority of Canadians think it’s high time to decriminalize illicit drugs: poll

More than two-times the B.C. residents know someone who died from an overdose compared to rest of Canada

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Photograph By @KAYLAXANDERSON
VIDEO: Lynx grabs lunch in Kamloops

A lynx surprises a group of ducks and picks one off for lunch

(Black Press Media file photo)
B.C. residents can reserve provincial camp sites starting March 8

B.C. residents get priority access to camping reservations in province

Two women were arrested in Nanaimo for refusing to wear masks and causing disturbance on a BC Ferries vessel. (File photo)
B.C. ferry passengers arrested and fined for disturbance, refusing to wear masks

Police said woman threatened their pensions in Feb. 21 incident aboard Nanaimo-bound boat

Most Read