Overdose Deaths Continue to Soar Across Canada

New numbers suggest 2020 will be one of the worst years on record for drug users. In British Columbia, far more people are dying from overdoes than Covid-19.
September 24, 2020, 5:08pm
A man pauses at a coffin after carrying it during a memorial march to remember victims of drug overdose deaths.
A man pauses at a coffin after carrying it during a memorial march to remember victims of overdose deaths in Vancouver on Saturday, August 15, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Overdose deaths are continuing to soar across Canada amid the pandemic, confirmed by new numbers released by British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario this week. Added to the previous overdose death numbers compiled by VICE News earlier this month, the new numbers show at least 2,898 people in Canada have died of drug overdoses so far this year, putting it on track to be one of the worst years yet for the overdose crisis.

Advocates say the situation will only continue to deteriorate in the months ahead without immediate ramping up of harm reduction and safe supply measures, especially as provinces consider reimposing lockdown measures that can exacerbate overdoses.

“It’s one of the most significant public health crises in the last century and it’s been years that communities across Canada have been desperate for support,” Michael Parkinson, a drug strategy specialist at the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council, told VICE News. “I expect a continuation of unacceptable deaths and injuries due to the ever-increasing toxic, unregulated (drug) market.”

Opioid overdoses resulted in the deaths of 301 people in Alberta from April to June, according to the latest numbers that were quietly released by the province during the federal government’s throne speech on Wednesday that barely mentioned the overdose crisis.

It’s the highest overdose rate Alberta has recorded since it started monitoring overdoses, and it’s more than twice the number of people who died of opioid overdoses during the first three months of the year in the province. These figures do not include a June alert from Alberta Health Services that warned of 16 overdose deaths linked to carfentanil in Edmonton.

“The past few months have led to increased fear and anxiety, isolation, disruption to in-person services, job uncertainty, and more,” Alberta associate health minister Jason Luan said in a statement. “British Columbia has reported similar findings and trends during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we anticipate similar findings in other jurisdictions, such as Ontario, which is in the preliminary stages of reporting.”

British Columbia’s latest overdose data, also released on Wednesday, shows that 147 people there died of drug overdoses during the month of August alone, outpacing the total 227 confirmed COVID-19 deaths in the province in all of 2020. There have been 1,068 drug toxicity deaths in B.C. so far this year, up from the 983 total for all of 2019.

Last week, the province implemented new policies allowing registered nurses to prescribe pharmaceutical alternatives to the street supply and expanding who can access these prescriptions. The move was widely praised as one that will help prevent overdoses and provide people with more healthcare access. Drug policy experts say more efforts like it are needed in other parts of the country.

On Thursday, Ontario released data that showed 220 opioid deaths occurred in May, confirming VICE News’ previous reporting that shows nearly 900 opioid deaths have occurred in the province so far this year.

Alberta’s health ministry said on Wednesday the record-level overdoses are linked to a “decrease in the utilization of treatment and harm reduction services.”

For months, Alberta’s United Conservative Party government has been criticized for its hostility toward harm reduction efforts, including cutting off funding for a number of programs, and instead focusing mostly on rehab and abstinence-based treatment. Premier Jason Kenney said earlier this summer, “Handing somebody who's deep in addiction a needle is not a continuum of care.”

Elaine Hyshka, a drug policy expert and professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta, told VICE News the demographics of those most at risk for overdoses in Alberta are also those who are most at risk for COVID-19.

She urged the province to treat both health crises with the same seriousness. “We need to redouble our efforts if we are going to address the overdoses effectively,” Hyshka said.

“The harm reduction services sector in the province is really struggling because there’s no sense of what’s going to happen next. It’s very stressful to be on the frontlines responding to two epidemics.”

Parkinson said he was disheartened to hear barely any mention of the overdose crisis in the federal government’s speech from the throne this week that outlined its new priorities and legislative agenda. The speech included a one-sentence pledge to “continue to address the opioid epidemic,” without any details.

“It remains a chronic crisis of preventable death and injury desperately in need of an urgent and proportional response similar to what we’ve seen unfold with COVID-19 and other causes of death due to infectious diseases,” he said.

“It’s increasingly difficult to find someone doing this frontline work who is not severely traumatized by the steady stream of deaths.”

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