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More Canadians are dying of drug overdoses — and coronavirus is to blame

Opioid crisis worsened during COVID-19 pandemic
According to new data from across the country, opioid overdoses have increased since social distancing measures began in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the wake of the outbreak, support programs have been more difficult to access by people suffering from opioid addiction. Heather Yourex-West has the details.

Editor’s Note:  An earlier version of this story stated that Shawn Richards died at the end of March.  The story has been corrected to state that he died on April 30, 2020.

Shawn Richards began the month of March 2020 clean and sober.

The Orillia, Ont., man was finishing a three-month rehabilitation program for opioid dependency and was regularly attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings. But by the end of April, Richards was dead.

His mother believes the COVID-19 pandemic is at least partly to blame.

“When Shawn got out (of rehab) the NA meetings closed, they stopped five people gatherings so they were closed down,” said Richards’ mother, Johanne Logue.

“Shawn’s gym closed down — which he attended faithfully — his work slowed down because it was only emergency repairs and his baseball was cancelled.”

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READ MORE: Opioid crisis escalating in Hamilton due to naloxone restrictions, doctor says

“So with that and Shawn being an addict, he started isolating and not being able to see family or friends. (He) said to me, ‘Mom I feel like I’m being backed up against the wall.’

On April 30, Logue found her son dead in his home.  She says he had died from a fentanyl overdose.

“I lost my son and I think it could have been prevented if things were opened up to him.”

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“We’re in a really, really difficult moment because the COVID-19 pandemic is intersecting with the opioid crisis in some of the worst ways possible,” said Gillian Kolla, a volunteer with the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society and a researcher at the University of Toronto.

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While we don’t yet know the full impact social distancing policies have had on overdose rates, early numbers suggest that the news isn’t good.

READ MORE: March was B.C.’s deadliest month for overdoses in a year: B.C. Coroners Service

According to the BC Coroners Service, there were 113 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths in March 2020.

That number represents a 61 per cent increase over the number of deaths in February and the first time the province has seen more than 100 deaths in a month since March of last year.

“With COVID-19 arriving, people haven’t been able to access or use services like they were and of course people are trying to do as they’re told,” says Jane Buxton, Medical Lead of Harm Reduction at the BC Centre for Disease Control.

“They’re trying to physically distance and that may mean they’re not attending the services that they need to help.”

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The City of Toronto has also seen a sharp increase in drug overdose deaths since social distancing measures began.  In April, 25 people died due to drug overdoses, a high not seen in nearly three years.

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Overdose numbers have not yet been compiled in Alberta, but a spokesperson for Alberta Health says Edmonton hospitals have seen a notable increase in the number of patients presenting with an opioid overdose.

“Admissions from overdose went from nine to 14 a day between April and May,” Kassandra Kitz, press secretary for the Associate Minister of Mental Health & Addiction, said in an email to Global News.

READ MORE: Ontario opioid crisis worsens during pandemic as services for drug users scale back

“We don’t have data from the coroner or anything yet, but we have heard of an increase in fatalities,” said Stacey Carmichael, executive director of the Turning Point Society in Red Deer, Alta.

Turning Point operates the city’s only overdose prevention site. Carmichael says since that site opened, the group rarely heard about overdose deaths in the community.

In the last three weeks, however, Carmichael says she’s heard about three.

“We hear about the, ‘so-and-so overdosed and died last night,’ and then we do confirm it; I believe the protocol is from three different sources.

“We know that it’s happened.”

On Friday, Heather Yourex-West looks at what can be done to help those struggling with addictions during the COVID-19 pandemic and how some Canadian jurisdictions have adapted harm reduction services to align with COVID-19 social distancing protocols.

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If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.