COVID-19 fuels the growing opioid crisis in Canada
From opioid over-prescription to policies and supply restrictions, several factors lead to the opioid crisis to explode, while limited access to safe drugs contributes to the increase in recent opioid-related deaths.
Gordon Casey was a lawyer who helped build companies for the online gaming industries. But in 2016, he and his family packed up their belongings and moved to Vancouver.
Vancouver was a hotspot for social entrepreneurship and provided a unique space where healthcare issues and technology intersected, says Casey, CEO ofBrave Coop, a company founded to prevent overdose deaths. 2016 was the same year that British Columbia declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency.
“When we got to Vancouver, the overdose crisis was very much in our faces. I started asking people from every sector about how I could improve the outcomes,” says Casey.
Between January 2016 to September 2021,26,690 Canadians died due to an overdose. According to the Apparent Opioid and Stimulants Toxicity Deaths by Public Health Agency of Canada, the hardest hit provinces were British Columbia, Ontario, and Alberta. Young Canadians between 20 to 49 years old suffered the most from accidental overdoses.
The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the opioid crisis. There was a95 per cent increase in opioid related deaths in the first year of the pandemic compared to the previous year. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention sawsimilar overdose deathstrends in the United States as well.
The pandemic forced safe injection sites across Canada to be shut down. The drug supply was disrupted, which made it more difficult for users to access drugs safely.
“The COVID-19 public health messaging—to isolate yourself is hypothetical for opioid users because consumption alone is dangerous,” says Casey. Fatality statistics indicate that it is the opioid users that are the ones at the most risk with injection site shutdowns and isolation, explains Casey.
But, how did the opioid problem grow into a massive crisis in Canada to begin with?
Over-prescribing opioids, the mismanagement of policies, drug restrictions, and structural issues caused the problem to explode into a crisis, said Tara Gomes, a scientist at the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network ata keynote event in 2017.
From Opioid Problem to Crisis
The opioid crisis stemmed from overprescribing drugs and policies that restricted usage. Purdue Pharma created OxyContin and advertised it as a pill that helped ease the pain for patients—anything from backaches to cancer.
Some doctors said they increased opioid usage for Canadian patients as a pain treatment. Some patients became addicted to the drug and required higher doses each time, eventually leading to an overdose, explained Dr. Brittany Dennis, an internal medicine resident at McMaster University in her2020 Soapbox Science recording.
“Some clinicians get patients in and out quickly so that they can bill a lot of money. They do not offer the proper services that patients need,” she said.
To stop the spread of opioid addiction, Canada restricted drug use and dosage. People had to turn to other sources to find the drug supply. Trafficking of unregulated drugs fuelled the crisis and created a negative stigma for the person who uses drugs.
“[Canada] created a cohort of people with an opioid use disorder due to overprescribing and introducing policies that tried to promote more appropriate prescribing. [Canada is] now pushing [users] into the illicit market that is inherently less safe,” explained Gomes during the keynote.
Fighting the Opioid Crisis
As Canadians continue to prioritize the COVID-19 pandemic over the last 25 months, Casey stated that other public health crises have been swept under the rug and forgotten.
“It is a bit frustrating for me because [I] saw how amazingly the government and the people of the country can mobilize themselves to fight a public health crisis. While there has been an emergency for the opioid crisis for five years now and it has not changed,” says Casey.
To help fight against overdose during the pandemic, Brave Coop launched a codesigned app called BeSafe. The app connects the person who uses drugs with a community member allowing for safe consumption anywhere with one tap on a phone.
The person who uses drugs to create a plan for how they want to be taken care of when they become unresponsive. The plan is shared with a volunteer community member when the user becomes unresponsive or no longer active on the app.
“There is no point designing programs that work for the public healthcare system, Big Pharma, or community organizations. It needs to be designed for people who use drugs,” says Casey.
Mobilizing people to act quickly against a public health crisis requires unity. “[The opioid crisis] is a big societal issue. If we want to eliminate addiction, then we need advocacy, funding to go behind it, give people the drug to help with their addiction, counselling, and more,” said Dennis in her recording.
Author bio: Rebecca is an interdisciplinary researcher and science communicator. She has a diverse research background ranging from pedagogy, medical education and cardiology. Currently, she is a research assistant in the Department of Medicine at McMaster University. In her spare time, she enjoys writing blogs and creating digital content.