According to KFL&A Public Health, alongside the COVID-19 pandemic, the Kingston region is facing a “shadow pandemic” when it comes to opioid overdoses.
“I call it a shadow pandemic because I don’t think that’s what people are seeing, people are seeing lots of COVID,” says Susan Stewart of KFL&A Public Health. “But what we’re seeing is that the number of deaths have been increasing steadily for a couple of years now, but really spiked with the COVID pandemic.”
Susan Stewart, chair of KFL&A Public Health’s community drug strategy, says Public Health Ontario has compared the opioid crisis from before the pandemic with what is happening now, and the results are alarming.
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“(Public Health Ontario) compared the eight months before the pandemic to the eight months of the pandemic from March 2020 to December 2020, and there was a 79 per cent increase in opioid deaths. That’s huge,” Stewart says.
“I can’t think of any other health care stat that has increased that much during the pandemic outside of COVID infections, of course.”
There were 16 deaths recorded in 2016 in relation to accidental opioid poisonings in the region. That number spiked to 42 in 2020, a 163 per cent increase.
“It’s alarming. Everyone should be alarmed by this.”
And it’s not just Kingston. According to Health Canada, opioid-related deaths have skyrocketed since the pandemic hit.
“The drugs are much more toxic than they were before,” Stewart says.
“We’re seeing a lot more fentanyl, which is a very powerful opioid compared to morphine. … We’re seeing a lot more of the drugs being mixed with benzodiazepines, which are generally like an anti-anxiety type of drug. And we’re seeing it mixed with all sorts of things.”
Statistics show that opioid overdose rates in the KFL&A region are consistently higher than the rates for Ontario. Stewart says that the increase in number of deaths is just the tip of the iceberg.
“What we’re seeing are people who didn’t survive their accidental opioid poisoning, but that’s not the whole story,” she says.
“You also have the people who had an accidental opioid poisoning who went to the emergency room. But we also have a number of people who were revived with naloxone in the community who didn’t see or have any touch with the health care system. And those numbers are not really counted.”
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kingston has experienced more deaths due to opioids than to COVID-19 in the region.
“The issue with addiction is that even if you know that it’s dangerous, it’s difficult not to use the substances. And so we’re doing lots of harm reduction in the community,” Stewart says. “We have the consumption and treatment services, we have naloxone available as widely as we can make it available, but this is still happening in the community.”
Stewart says the first thing people need to do to help fight the “shadow pandemic” is to become informed to help reduce the stigma surrounding addiction.
“Stigma is one of the biggest barriers for people who use substances to access the health and the care that they need.”