How harm reduction measures are changing under the COVID-19 pandemic

Keigan Tierney and his mother, Susan Aylward-Tierney. Global News/Mike Gill

This is the final instalment of a special two-part series looking at how Canada’s opioid crisis has been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. You can read Part 1 here.

Keigan Tierney says the last 10 years of his life have been hell. The 25-year-old Calgary man has battled drug addiction since high school.

“It’s been a struggle, especially the last couple years. I’ve been homeless, (in) jail, everything,” he said.

“I’ve been to treatment a couple times; it works for a little bit, then I end up messing up and being too embarrassed to come clean about it.”

Right now, though, Tierney is feeling hopeful. His mother says it feels like she has her son back, and oddly, they may have the coronavirus pandemic to thank.

READ MORE: B.C. opens new pathway to ‘safe supply’ for drug users amid coronavirus pandemic

“This has been a blessing for all of us,” said Susan Aylward-Tierney. “It’s given him an opportunity to reassess and have a roof over his head.”

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For the last month, Tierney has been isolating in a hotel thanks to the Alpha House Society, receiving treatment each day for his opioid use disorder from a mobile injectable opioid agonist therapy (IOAT) program operated out of Calgary’s Sheldon M. Chumir Health Centre.

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“We have had him in many different programs, we have done everything in our power to get him out of the crisis that he’s in, and (this is) the first (program) that has really been working for him, is the IOAT program,” said Aylward-Tierney. “(Without it) he would probably be dead or on the streets looking for his next fix.”

Gillian Kolla, a volunteer with the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society, says safe supply initiatives like the one in Calgary are what’s needed to save lives, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic — but she says programs like these are not widely available across the country.

“This is a place where we really could use massive scale-up and that would be very helpful in addressing both the COVID-19 pandemic and the overdose crisis,” Kolla said.

READ MORE: ‘Safe supply’ slow to roll out in small Okanagan communities — advocate

“The other thing that would be really helpful would be safer supply initiatives. For example, in B.C., we saw a group of doctors release some risk mitigation guidelines that basically call for prescribing of pharmaceutical alternatives to the street supply of drugs so people can have those medications and be able to use them while in isolation.”

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In March, B.C. introduced new clinical guidance to make it easier for people struggling with addiction to get access to safe drugs.

It outlines how prescribers, pharmacists and care providers can “support the provision of medications — including safe prescription alternatives to the illegal drug supply — to be delivered directly to patients, along with telemedicine for clinical assessments.”

To be eligible to access those drugs, people would need to either have a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19 or be at risk of infection, have a history of substance use and be at high risk of withdrawal or overdose.

READ MORE: Overdoses, Narcan use spike to record levels in Saskatoon 

Jane Buxton, medical lead for harm reduction at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, says that while the guidance was introduced to help people struggling with addiction during the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for safe supply will continue after physical-distancing measures end.

“It’s a guidance document that has been introduced because of COVID, but obviously we would hope that safer supply and pharmaceutical alternatives continue after COVID-19,” Buxton said.

“It’s our opportunity to see how acceptable (the guidance is) and how many people will be willing to prescribe.”

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— With files from Simon Little

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