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

A man wears a mask while walking down Canyon Street in Creston on Nov. 13. Photo: Aaron Hemens
Creston resident living with COVID-19 reflects on experience

Contracting and living with the virus, she said, has led to a “major reset” in her life

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
Interior Health reports 70 new cases overnight

The total number of cases in the region is now at 1,426

An employee of the Adventure Hotel was taken to hospital on Nov. 20 after she confronted a customer of Empire Coffee about not wearing a mask. File photo.
Nelson hotel employee suffers heart attack after being assaulted in anti-mask incident

An accountant at the Adventure Hotel is in hospital in Kelowna

RCMP pictured at a motor vehicle incident during snowy conditions. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
Fruitvale woman charged with impaired driving in 2019 crash that killed 2 teens

A 15-year-old boy and 18-year-old woman, both from Fruitvale, died in the crash that sent the vehicle into the river

Masks are now officially mandatory in all City of Campbell River facilities. (Black Press File Photo)
Interior Health reports 49 new COVID-19 cases overnight

302 cases remain active; two in hospital

A man wearing a face mask to help curb the spread of COVID-19 walks in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020. The use of masks is mandatory in indoor public and retail spaces in the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. records deadliest day of pandemic with 13 deaths, 738 new COVID-19 cases

Number of people in hospital is nearing 300, while total cases near 30,000

(File photo)
Alberta woman charged after allegedly hitting boy with watermelon at Okanagan campsite

Police say a disagreement among friends at an Adams Lake campsite turned ugly

Court of Appeal for British Columbia in Vancouver. (File photo: Tom Zytaruk)
B.C. woman loses appeal to have second child by using late husband’s sperm

Assisted Human Reproduction Act prohibits the removal of human reproductive material from a donor without consent

Krista Macinnis displays the homework assignment that her Grade 6 daughter received on Tuesday. (Submitted photo)
B.C. mom angry that students asked to list positive stories about residential schools

Daughter’s Grade 6 class asked to write down 5 positive stories or facts

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

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

B.C. projects targeting the restoration of sockeye salmon stocks in the Fraser and Columbia Watersheds will share in $10.9 million of federal funding to protect species at risk. (Kenny Regan photo)
13 projects protecting B.C. aquatic species at risk receive $11 million in federal funding

Salmon and marine mammals expected to benefit from ecosystem-based approach

Barrels pictured outside Oliver winery, Quinta Ferreira, in May. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
B.C. Master of Wine reflects on industry’s teetering economic state

Pandemic, for some wine makers, has been a blessing in disguise. For others, not so much.

Most Read