Opioid-related deaths spike in Ontario during pandemic, new report finds
Prescription pills containing oxycodone and acetaminophen are shown in Toronto on December 23, 2017. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy)
TORONTO -- A new report suggests Ontario is facing a 40-per-cent spike in opioid-related deaths that can be largely attributed to collateral damage from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The report, released Tuesday and funded by the Ontario government and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, examined data obtained during investigations of confirmed and suspected opioid-related deaths in Ontario that shows the province is on pace for its worst year for opioid-related deaths in history.
"If we stay on this track, we're likely to exceed 2,200 opioid-related deaths in Ontario this year, which far surpasses the number that we've had any previous year," Dr. Tara Gomes, a scientist at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute of St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto and a principal investigator of the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network, told CTV News.
"We're seeing shifts in the people who are impacted by these overdoses as well as the circumstances of the overdoses."
The report found that men represent 78 per cent of the opioid-related deaths since the start of the pandemic, an increase from 70 per cent pre-pandemic. Meanwhile, 90 per cent of the deaths were among people aged 25 to 64.
In addition to the increase in deaths, the report points out that the data suggests more people are dying in more ethnically diverse neighbourhoods, with higher proportions of people who are recent immigrants to Canada or racialized Canadians.
Also, about 74 per cent of the deaths were among people who were alone at the time of their overdose, meaning there was no one present to administer resuscitation or naloxone treatment.
For Gomes, the fact that more Ontarians died while alone points to the fact that COVID-19 restrictions may have played a factor in their deaths.
"This can likely be tied to some of these measures that are in place, that are required, for the COVID-19 pandemic around physical distancing and decreased access to harm reduction services," she said. "This all comes together to create more opportunity for harm in this population."
An increase in opioid-related deaths during the pandemic is not an issue exclusive to Ontario. In British Columbia, 127 people died from opioid overdoses in September alone, a 112 per cent increase from the same time in 2019.
Additionally, the province broke its single-month record with 175 deaths in June. At the time, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said data from these deaths represented eerily similar circumstances to what is now being reported in Ontario.
"Two-thirds of people died in their own home," she said on July 16. "We know from the conversations we've had with family, with friends, that most of their family and friends did not know that they were using drugs and many of them died alone."
Gomes noted that similar circumstances in B.C. and around the country should not come as a shock.
"It's not really surprising. These measures which are required for COVID-19 are very dangerous for people who use drugs," she said.
Gomes is urging provincial government to take into account the people with addiction issues when enforcing any further restrictions due to COVID-19.
"I think we've learned that while we really need to obviously take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously and implement these public health measures, we need to speak with people working on the ground -- harm reduction workers -- and people who use drugs to understand the implications of those changes on their lives," she said.