On Monday night in Winnipeg, paramedics received a call. Bystanders had found a man unconscious along a bike path in the city’s St. Boniface neighbourhood, and called 911.
When paramedic Michelle Bessas arrived, the team gave the man Narcan — or naloxone, a drug used to revive opioid overdoses – to wake him, before taking him to the ambulance on a gurney.
“Do you know what happened tonight?” she asked the patient as she examined him in the ambulance. “You smoked too much Down and you stopped breathing. It’s a good thing somebody found you.
“They had to give you quite a bit of Narcan to wake you up.”
Down — another name for fentanyl — has been making the rounds on Winnipeg’s streets.
Overdoses with it and other opioids, and methamphetamine, have hit a high point during the COVID-19 pandemic, making for the worst year Bessas, district chief of paramedic operations with the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service, has seen in her 20 years at work.
“It’s definitely on the rise in Winnipeg, and it’s become pretty deadly,” she said. In just one night on one ambulance in one city, a Global News camera captured three overdoses.
The problem has gotten worse across Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic, advocates say, and the data shows it too.
A B.C. report released Tuesday found that the first half of 2021 had the most-ever drug deaths in the first six months of a year: 1,011, beating last year’s record by over 30 per cent. Drug toxicity is now the province’s leading cause of death for those aged 19-39, according to the B.C. Coroners Service.
In New Brunswick, which avoided the worst of the pandemic, there were four times more overdose deaths than COVID-related deaths in 2020.
A June report from the Public Health Agency of Canada found that on average, around 17 people died of opioid overdose per day across Canada in 2020.
The total number, 6,214, is about the same number who die of Alzheimer’s, and a little bit less than the number who die of diabetes every year.
And yet, overdoses have made hardly a ripple on the campaign trail.
“Our attention has been elsewhere,” said Dr. David Juurlink, head of the division of clinical pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Toronto.
“For the last year and a half, we’ve all been engrossed in COVID. I think that has sort of added to the degree of isolation that people have, and the supports that people have had for addiction care have largely been redirected toward the care of people with COVID.”
That focus on COVID-19 has had deadly consequences for drug users, said Dan Werb, director of the Centre on Drug Policy Evaluation at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.
“Obviously, with COVID, you’re trying to reduce as many people congregating in one place,” he said.
“But unfortunately, the best way to prevent people from dying from an overdose is to have somebody there to either observe them while they’re using drugs to make sure that if they do overdose, they can be revived or have a medical professional there in the context of a supervised injection site who might be able to administer oxygen or other interventions in case they do overdose.”
The pandemic has also disrupted supply chains for drugs, meaning that the illegal drug market is “completely contaminated with carfentanyl and a number of other drugs,” Werb said.
The Liberals have promised to give the provinces $4.5 billion over five years in funding for mental health if re-elected. When it comes to the overdose epidemic specifically, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said at a campaign event Tuesday, “We’re treating it as a medical problem.”
“We need to do many different things, from safe consumption sites to safe supply, to better funding for frontline workers, to treating addiction as a mental and a health issue, not as a criminal justice issue,” he said, though the Liberal Party has not yet released specific platform promises related to illicit drugs.
The Conservatives do include specifics on drug addiction in their platform, pledging to create new residential drug treatment beds and recovery community centres.
“We need to treat the addiction, crisis and opioids as the health crisis it is and help people,” Leader Erin O’Toole said Tuesday.
The NDP says in its platform that it will declare the opioid crisis a national public health emergency and will work with provinces to end the criminalization of drug addiction, create a safe supply of drugs and expand treatment options.
For more ideas, Werb says, politicians could turn to a report recently released by Health Canada’s Expert Task Force on Substance Use, which recommended regulating all drugs – including those that are currently illegal – and creating a national safe supply program, to help with drug contamination problems.
“As a member of the task force, I’m really, really pleased that those reports were released prior to the election,” Werb said. “I think that it presents a clear strategy and a bold and innovative strategy for moving towards overdose prevention and overcoming the overdose epidemic.”
Help can’t come soon enough, some say.
At an event for International Overdose Awareness Day in Toronto on Tuesday, Irene Paterson spoke about her son Roger Wong, who she said was “pure sunshine.” Roger died of a fentanyl overdose in 2017, after seeking treatment but having to wait for his appointment.
“When you need help, you need help now,” she said. She called for action from all levels of government and to declare a public health emergency on overdose.
“I can’t bring Roger back, but I vowed with every fibre and every breath I had to bring awareness so that other mothers don’t go through what I’ve been through.”
— With files from Richard Cloutier, Global News