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

Highway 20 is now open but conditions are still challenging (Dawson Road Maintenance photo)
Some customers still without power as additional crews brought in to help

Trees continued to fall onto lines even after the actual storm had passed

The exposure occurred on 24th, 25th, & 26th November 2020, and affects Grade 7, 8, 9, 10 (file photo)
COVID-19 case confirmed at Acwsalcta School

The exposure occurred on 24th, 25th, & 26th November 2020, and affects Grade 7, 8, 9, 10.

A convoy of vehicles passes through Heckman Pass on Highway 20 as cleanup operations continued Saturday. Dawson Road Maintenance is asking motorists to watch for crews and equipment working throughout the area. (Dawson Road Maintenance photo/Facebook)
Highway 20 reopens between Anahim Lake and Bella Coola after winter storm Friday

“We appreciate your patience as we continue to clear wood debris and widen sections of the road.”

Bella Coola RCMP are alerting residents that the road between 4 Mile subdivision and downtown will be closed until at least tomorrow. (File image)
Winter storm closes 4 Mile to downtown road in Bella Coola

Police it will remain closed until Saturday, at least

A B.C. Ambulance Service paramedic wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 moves a stretcher outside an ambulance at Royal Columbia Hospital, in New Westminster, B.C., on Sunday, November 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. records deadliest weekend of COVID-19 pandemic with 46 deaths; more than 2,300 cases

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry provides COVID-19 update

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
B.C. researchers launch study to test kids, young adults for COVID-19 antibodies

Kids and youth can often be asymptomatic carriers of the novel coronavirus

A sign is seen this past summer outside the Yunesit’in Government office west of Williams Lake reminding visitors and members to stay safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Rebecca Dyok photo)
B.C. First Nation leaders await Commissioner decision on COVID-19 case information

Release of life-saving data cannot wait, says coalition of First Nations

MLA Jennifer Whiteside is also the minister of education. She is speaking out against Chilliwack school trustee Barry Neufeld and asking him to resign. (Black Press)
New education minister calls on Chilliwack trustee to resign

Whiteside echoes former minister’s promise to look at options to remove Barry Neufeld

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Peter Beckett. ~ File photo
Supreme Court of Canada to decide if it will hear appeal in 2010 wife murder trial

Peter Beckett has stood trial twice for murder in connection with the death of his wife, Laura Letts-Beckett

Tabor Home in Abbotsford. (Ben Lypka/Abbotsford News)
B.C.’s largest COVID-19 care-home outbreak records 19 deaths, 147 cases

Tabor Home in Abbotsford has been battling outbreak since Nov. 4

Ash and Lisa Van carry a freshly cut Christmas tree while wearing personal protective masks at a Christmas Tree Farm in Egbert, Ontario, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020 THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Cole Burston
‘Everyone wants a tree and they want it now’: Christmas tree sales on pace for record

Anticipated demand for Christmas trees has sparked a rush by some to purchase more trees wholesale

Business groups have been advocating for years that local approvals for construction in B.C. are too long and restricted, and that B.C.’s outdates sales tax deter business investment. (Black Press Media file photo)
B.C. residents worried about COVID-19 deficit, business survey finds

Respondents support faster local approvals, value added tax

Most Read