In lieu of a daily in-person update to the media, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, issued the following statement today:
“As of Friday, May 29, there are 88,856 COVID-19 cases, including 6,918 deaths and 47,163 or 53 percent have now recovered. Labs across Canada have tested over 1,593,000 people for COVID-19 to date, with about 5 percent of these testing positive overall. Over the past week, we have been testing an average of 22,300 people daily. These numbers change quickly. I encourage Canadians to consult Canada.ca/coronavirus for the latest information.
While everyone in Canada is working hard in the fight against COVID-19, there is an increasing concern about a range of unintended negative consequences of the pandemic response. Among these is the impact on the ongoing public health crisis of opioid-related overdose deaths and problematic substance use in Canada more broadly.
This week, the British Columbia Coroners Service reported that unintentional illicit drug toxicity deaths have increased in recent months, with over 100 reported deaths in the province in both March and April 2020. These data indicate a very worrying trend. It has been over a year since British Columbia observed numbers this high sustained over a two-month period.
Tragically, other jurisdictions across the country are reporting similar trends. In April 2020, Toronto Paramedic Services reported the highest number of illicit opioid-related fatalities in a month since September 2017, noting responses to 343 suspected drug overdose calls including 25 deaths. Overdose interventions have also spiked at the Calgary Drop-In Centre, where staff reversed over 40 overdoses in both March and April 2020 compared to 11 in February. There have also been clusters of overdoses due to unknown or unusual mixes of toxic illicit substances in jurisdictions, including Nova Scotia, Toronto, and Guelph, Ontario.
While it remains vital to keep up public health measures to protect Canadians from COVID-19, we must find ways to maintain lifesaving supports, including treatment and harm reduction services, for loved ones and members of our communities who use drugs. Changes in the illegal drug supply in the wake of COVID-19 may result in increased risk of overdose for anyone who uses illicit drugs.
We know that using drugs alone is a major risk factor for experiencing a fatal overdose. This is why it is so important to never use drugs alone. Always have someone nearby to call for help if things go wrong and carry naloxone, a life-saving drug that can temporarily reverse the effects of an opioid-related overdose. If you are isolated because of COVID-19, connect virtually to someone close by who can monitor you and be ready to call 9-1-1 (or your local emergency help line) if needed.
It is encouraging to see community organizations and orders of government across the country coming together to address the dual public health crises of COVID-19 and drug overdose deaths in Canada. Harm reduction and treatment facilities are implementing infection controls. Virtual and mobile services are being ramped up to serve people at a distance. Apps like the Lifeguard App in British Columbia will automatically contact 9-1-1 if you don’t click in within 75 seconds of taking a drug. Organizations like Stella’s Circle in Newfoundland and Labrador are providing clients with smartphones, tablets and Wi-Fi to help them access online mental wellness and substance use supports. Others are providing adequate housing, meals and improving access to medications for substance use disorders, pain and other medical conditions to minimise drug-related harms and the impacts of COVID-19.
Keep innovating Canada – we must continue to work together to reduce drug-related harms while also keeping up with essential public health measures to reduce the impact of COVID-19.”
Public Health Agency of Canada