The inside of a naloxone kit. B.C. saw the most overdose deaths in one month in May, with fatal overdoses in the Island Health region surpassing its highest number by 36 per cent. (Black Press Media file photo)

COVID-19 contributes to spike in overdose deaths, experts say

‘Unintended consequences’ of pandemic, stronger drug supply play role in fatal overdoses

British Columbia saw the most overdose deaths in one month in May, with deaths in the Island Health region surpassing its highest number by 36 per cent, and the COVID-19 pandemic could have something to do with that.

In the province, 170 people died from fatal overdoses last month marking the highest number of deaths in a single month since the crisis was declared in 2016. Data from the BC Coroners Service released on June 11 shows there were 38 deaths in the Island Health region. Previously, the highest number of deaths in Island Health was 28 in each of January and March 2018.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer, said the increase in illicit drug deaths reflects the fact that the drug supply is “increasingly toxic,” which has to do with where the drugs are being manufactured, what they’ve been cut with and what’s coming in from where.

Leading up to May, there were issues around Topaz Park and around Pandora Avenue in Victoria, she told Black Press Media.

“We know there were overdoses at Topaz park,” Henry said. “That’s one of the reasons there was a public safety order to find safe housing for people.”

For those in safe housing, Henry said an important component is ensuring drug users have access to pharmaceutical alternatives to the street drug supply if they qualify for it, mental health and health supports and a safe place to stay. The safe housing and hotels are equipped with overdose prevention sites on the property.

“We’ve not seen any deaths in the safe hotels that people have been put in,” Henry said.

Our Place Society director of communications Grant McKenzie said the pandemic disrupted the supply chain with less fentanyl coming in from overseas. Due to this, drug dealers began cutting drugs with different things, making them more dangerous.

“Some people thought they were getting uppers but downers were mixed in there,” McKenzie said. “In one case they had to use 15 doses of Narcan on someone which is what’s needed to reverse overdoses but normally it’s one or two doses that’s needed.”

McKenzie said situations like tent cities can also draw in drug dealers who are “predators,” taking advantage of higher anxiety and large groups.

“Really, addiction is about people trying to self-medicate through difficult times so when something like COVID-19 hits that can lead to heightened anxiety, depression and addictive behaviours,” McKenzie said.

Island Health’s chief medical health officer Dr. Richard Stanwick said a big concern is the drug supply itself, noting that the BC Coroners Service saw extremely high levels of fentanyl in people’s blood. He questioned why such potent fentanyl is being found on the street and said further investigation into this needs to be done.

Another concern, Stanwick said, is that many people are using alone due to COVID-19 restrictions meaning they don’t have someone around to administer Narcan if needed or call for help. There may also be many new users turning to drug use due to anxiety and depression brought on by the pandemic and subsequent job losses and isolation.

“It’s another one of the unintended consequences of COVID-19,” Stanwick said. “We know we’re going to see a mental health impact.”

Almost 50 per cent of the people who died of overdose on Vancouver Island were inside residences and about a quarter of them were in some sort of housing situation, Stanwick said, pointing to the fact that many of the deaths are occurring amongst functioning drug users who are likely not part of the homeless population.

Another unintended consequence from the COVID-19 pandemic is the extra financial support from the province and federal government. Typically, Stanwick said graphs would show peaks of overdoses around times when financial support was being released but they’ve steadied during the pandemic.

“[People’s] dependencies are so great they’ll use funds [intended] for food and rent, for illicit drug supply,” Stanwick said.

For the past three weeks, Island Health has published multiple overdose advisories after seeing this new, lethal drug supply on the streets. The health authority advises drug users to visit local overdose prevention sites, have substances checked, carry naloxone, have an overdose response plan, test the drugs before taking a regular hit, use with a friend or be close to help if alone and stagger use with a friend so someone can respond if needed.

A new LifeguardApp is also available to those using drugs alone. The app has them check in just before using and then check in again a short while later. If there is no second response, emergency services are sent to the individual’s geographic location.

“We really need to get to people using alone,” Stanwick said. “If you use this app you’re basically protecting your life.”

Stanwick also said people should not be afraid of calling for help or going to a hospital, despite the pandemic.

“There’s no question about which pandemic is the greater risk at this time,” Stanwick said. “We lost five people on the Island to COVID-19, we lost six people in one day in Victoria to overdose.”

shalu.mehta@blackpress.ca

B.C. overdosesCoronavirusopioid deaths

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