(May 25, 2021) In Ontario alone, 2,050 people died because of opioid-related deaths between March 16, 2020, to December 31, 2020, representing a 79 per cent increase in opioid-related deaths, says a report issued by Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital last week.
Across the country, Public Health Canada reported in the six months following the implementation of the COVID-19 prevention measures (April to September 2020) there were 3,351 apparent opioid-related deaths, representing a 74% increase from the six months prior.
Ontario researchers found more than half of opioid-related deaths occurred among people who were unemployed at the time of their death. One in six was homeless. Of those who were employed, approximately one-third of opioid-related deaths occurred among people in the construction industry.
The report also said some of the largest increases in opioid-related deaths occurred among northern and rural parts of the province, such as North Bay, Sudbury, Thunder Bay and Timmins.
Almost three-quarters of the people who died (73 per cent) died alone.
Researchers attributed the dramatic increase to an increasingly volatile unregulated drug supply during the pandemic. There was a 10-fold increase in the detection of non-prescription benzodiazepines in opioid-related deaths observed during the pandemic. Common trade names for benzodiazepines are Ativan, Librium, Xanax, and Valium.
Naloxone administration will reverse the effects of the opioids involved; however, it does not reverse the extreme sedation from benzodiazepines.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has not only worsened the existing overdose crisis in Ontario, but is disproportionately impacting people who are vulnerably housed and who are attempting to navigate risks of COVID-19 infection and an increasingly volatile drug supply,” said Dr. Tara Gomes, a Scientist at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute of St. Michael’s Hospital and a Principal Investigator of the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network (ODPRN).
“We are losing hundreds of lives to this crisis every month in Ontario, and the situation continues to worsen. These data reinforce the urgency of the overdose crisis in Ontario, and the need for a rapid, coordinated response by all levels of government to provide emergency funding and support for community-based harm reduction programs throughout the province,” said Dr. Gomes.
Among the homeless population who died, researchers noted a shift in where they died. There was a three-fold increase in opioid-related deaths that occurred in hotels, motels, and inns (5.9% to 20.4%). And “although the prevalence declined, the absolute number of opioid-related deaths that occurred in shelters or supportive living spaces nearly doubled, despite less access to shelter beds throughout the pandemic.”
“The increased number of opioid-related deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic is a stark reminder of the breadth and reach of the overdose crisis in Ontario.” said Dr. Dirk Huyer, Chief Coroner for Ontario. “Family, friends and communities are losing loved ones and we are working to understand how to respond to the crisis in the most effective way.”
The report concludes by saying “rapid action is needed to support people who use drugs as this pandemic continues to evolve.
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Feature Photo by Mat Napo.