May 29, 2020 / 8:11 PM / 2 months ago

Opioid overdoses on the rise in Canada during COVID-19 pandemic

TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada’s opioid-related deaths have been rising since the coronavirus pandemic began, the country’s chief public health officer said on Friday.

An intravenous (IV) drug user fills a syringe with street drugs in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside as the local health unit has started providing a "safe supply" of narcotic alternatives to combat overdoses due to poisonous additives and to help support addicts and the homeless into practicing social distancing to help slow the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada April 6, 2020. REUTERS/Jesse Winter

Theresa Tam highlighted British Columbia, Canada’s westernmost province and the epicenter of the country’s overdose crisis, which had over 100 deaths from illicit drugs in March and April.

“These data indicate a very worrying trend,” Tam said. “It has been over a year since British Columbia observed numbers this high sustained over a two-month period.”

The trend is nationwide, Tam added, pointing to Toronto, whose paramedic service reported that April had the highest number of opioid-related deaths in a month since September 2017.

In Calgary, overdose interventions spiked, with safe injection sites treating 40 overdoses in both March and April, up sharply from 11 in February.

The federal government announced in March that it would loosen restrictions on pharmacists to prescribe safe drug alternatives, a policy activists and experts have recommended for years.

The pandemic has impacted the drug supply chain by closing borders, which has led to the higher death rate, said Guy Felicella, a peer clinical advisor with the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use.

“When (drugs become) more challenging to get, the potency goes up, the price goes up, everything goes up, and in that sense it becomes more deadly by the day,” Felicella said.

The pandemic only exacerbated existing problems, he said, adding that the safe drug supply measures being brought in are too little, too late.

“You can’t blame COVID for your lack of response in addressing the overdose crisis,” he said.

(This story corrects name to “British Columbia Centre on Substance Use”, not “for Substance Abuse” in paragraph 7)

Reporting by Moira Warburton in Toronto; Editing by David Gregorio

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