Pandemic Sees Major Increases in Opioid Deaths Across Canada

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Opioid Addiction - image: depositphotos.com
Opioid Addiction - image: depositphotos.com

OTTAWA – HEALTH – The co-chairs of the federal, provincial and territorial Special Advisory Committee on the Epidemic of Opioid Overdoses—Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer and Dr. Jennifer Russell, New Brunswick’s Chief Medical Officer of Health—issued the following statement on the release of updated data on opioid-related harms in Canada, covering the period of January 1, 2016 to June 30, 2020. For the first time, data on harms related to stimulant use (e.g., cocaine and methamphetamine) are also being reported.

58 Per Cent Increase in Opioid Deaths

“Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak in Canada, we were seeing early and promising signs that opioid toxicity deaths were beginning to decline in some areas of the country. The national data released today offers insight into the severe and worsening impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the overdose crisis, as indicated by recent jurisdictional reporting. Between April and June 2020, there were 1,628 people who died of apparent opioid toxicity—a 58% increase from the previous quarter. Hospitalizations and emergency service responses due to overdose also increased during this period.

This alarming evidence also shows that from January to June 2020, approximately half of accidental opioid toxicity deaths also involved a stimulant drug, such as cocaine or methamphetamine. These data confirm that this crisis goes well beyond opioids, encompassing a wider range of substances.

From April to June 2020, Canada recorded the highest number of opioid toxicity deaths in a single quarter since national surveillance began in 2016. Unfortunately, updated projections released today by the Public Health Agency of Canada suggest that these numbers may remain high in the coming months.

We must act now to change these troubling projections. We must renew our collective efforts across the country. We need to leverage effective evidence-based public health measures designed to reduce harms associated with substance use, address the increasingly toxic illegal drug supply, and provide supports to people who use drugs, including treatment for those who are ready. We encourage healthcare providers across the country (who have the ability) to provide safer drug supply options to people living with an opioid use disorder. These initiatives provide pharmaceutical-grade medication to people at risk of opioid toxicity deaths and harms as an alternative to the toxic illegal drug supply. This can help save lives.

Between January 2016 and June 2020, 17,602 people died from apparent opioid toxicity and many more experienced overdoses. Every overdose hospitalization, emergency response and tragic death has a considerable impact on friends, families and communities, often leading to increased stress and trauma. We all need to demonstrate compassion and be part of the solution in addressing this crisis.

Addiction is a medical condition, not a choice someone makes. If you live with an addiction, know that help is available across Canada, including free resources and counselling via the Wellness Together Canada portal. We understand that asking for help takes a lot of courage.

With the holiday season fast approaching—which will involve modified plans for many people—it is especially important to reach out to loved ones who may be feeling stressed, lonely or isolated. We must continue to support those who are experiencing challenges related to substance use with dignity, compassion and respect, and ensure access to the required services. Raising awareness of the signs of overdose, carrying naloxone, not using drugs alone, not mixing drugs, and reducing stigma continue to be central to helping protect lives. If you know someone who is experiencing a substance use disorder, get the tools and information you need to support them.”

Dr. Theresa Tam
Chief Public Health Officer of Canada
Co-chair, Special Advisory Committee on the Epidemic of Opioid Overdoses

Dr. Jennifer Russell
Chief Medical Health Officer, New Brunswick
Co-chair, Special Advisory Committee on the Epidemic of Opioid Overdoses

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