Opioid deaths rose in first 15 weeks of COVID-19 pandemic: Ontario Public Health

A report from Ontario Public Health shows opioid deaths rose in the first 15 weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic when compared to the 15 weeks immediately preceding it.

The report — titled Preliminary Patters in Circumstances Surrounding Opioid-Related Deaths in Ontario during the COVID-19 pandemic — shows a 38 per cent increase in opioid deaths in those first 15 weeks.

Cynthia Olsen, coordinator of the Thunder Bay Drug Strategy, said the findings in the report show the pandemic, and efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the province, may be causing unintended harms to people with addictions.

“There are some impacts, and unintended consequences, as a result of the pandemic that are likely exacerbating the opioid crisis,” Olsen said. “We should be looking to this for targeted messaging … to ensure, for example, as we move into the second phase, we don’t have a further restriction of access to harm reduction supplies.”

“That we try to support any community organization who is able to provide those services, to do so at the fullest capacity that they can.”

For example, the report shows that the lockdown in Ontario in the early days of the pandemic led to a reduced capacity for pharmacies, outpatient clinics and harm reduction sites.

And even though places like pharmacies are essential services, and were operating, messaging sometimes gave the impression that wasn’t the case, Olsen said.

“And then, additionally, because they had to move more to a virtually format, that certainly put barriers [up] for people who don’t have access to technology,” Olsen said. “Access to outreach and harm reduction services shrunk quite a bit in Thunder Bay and across the region.”

That changed over the summer, as rules relaxed as face-to-face work was made possible again. But now, with cases in Thunder Bay and the region rising, there’s concern that the capacity could shrink again if more restrictions are put in place, Olsen said.

The report also shows that the location of opioid deaths had changed, as well, with more people dying while using drugs alone, outdoors or in hotels or motels during the pandemic.

More data needed

Olsen said while an increase in outdoor deaths could be attributed to warmer weather in the spring and summer, there is still concern over people using drugs alone.

Olsen said while people should maintain physical distancing, they still shouldn’t use drugs alone.

“That is one of the key risk factors for experiencing death as a result of overdose,” she said. “If nobody is there, other interventions can’t be provided, like calling 911, using Naloxone.”

While the report does also show that during the first 15 weeks of the pandemic, opioid deaths in Thunder Bay actually dropped when compared to the preceding 15 weeks, Olsen cautioned that data regarding overdoses during the pandemic is far from complete.

“We may have had lower numbers in that first 15 weeks … it was right around that time that we started to have anecdotal reports from especially our emergency responder partners indicating that they were, in fact, experiencing an increase in opioid-related calls, fatal and non-fatal,” she said. “We don’t have what the data looks like further into 2020, and so whether or not there’s been some shifts, we don’t know.”

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