Extreme heat in Western Canada last year and an escalating drug overdose crisis helped contribute to a nearly 6 per cent rise in deaths across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Statistics Canada.
Although the provisional excess mortality report released Thursday found COVID-19 accounted for a vast majority of the estimated 30,146 excess deaths from March 2020 through December 2021, it says the pandemic likely had “indirect consequences” that led to other excess deaths.
Those consequences include delayed health care response and increased substance abuse. But experts say addressing the underlying issues — extreme heat and safe supply — can help lessen those impacts and save lives.
Extreme heat concerns
Last summer, one of the most extreme heat waves in history led to more than 3,500 deaths in British Columbia and Alberta over a two-week period ending July 10, according to the report.
In B.C., much of the blame for heat-related deaths was put on long waits for paramedics, who told Global News that the health-care system — already strained by the pandemic — was stretched even further.
BC Emergency Health Services did not activate its emergency coordination centre until the day the heat began to subside.
Dr. Blair Feltmate, a professor at the University of Waterloo and head of the school’s Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation, says extreme heat is the deadliest of all climate change impacts, often leading to dozens of deaths at least.
“When floods or fires occur, generally speaking, (we’ll see) one, two, three, maybe four people die, which of course is four too many,” he said. “With extreme heat, it’s a whole other ballgame.
“This should be the code red of climate change,” he said. “This is the silent killer. … It’s not just inconvenient, it can kill you.”
Despite the issues with ambulance responses, the high number of deaths in Western Canada last year occurred under what Feltmate calls “good conditions,” where electricity was still running and water was being pumped through taller apartment buildings.
Without air conditioning, working elevators and water, “people can easily die in the thousands” during a similar heat wave, he said.
A study out of the United Kingdom released earlier this month projects that by around 2080, heat waves like last year’s could have a one-in-six chance of happening every year in western North America as the effects of human-caused climate change worsen.
The projections are different depending on whether global climate change is contained, the researchers said.
Feltmate estimates the number of days per year when major Canadian cities see temperatures exceed 30 C will double or even triple within 30 years.
Subsequent heat events in B.C. last summer saw improvements to the emergency response. The province and BC Emergency Health Services have vowed to improve their systems to avoid what happened in June and July.
Drug overdoses skyrocket
The Statistics Canada report found there were 4,494 excess deaths among Canadians younger than 45 between May 2020 through December 2021, 19 per cent more than if there had not been a pandemic.
Yet the report said most of those deaths were not caused by COVID-19, but rather other causes “such as overdoses.”
It noted the number of deaths among younger Canadians due to accidental poisonings — which includes drug overdoses — rose 30 per cent in 2020 compared to the year before.
The Public Health Agency of Canada says deaths from illicit drug use nationwide jumped 95 per cent during the first year of the pandemic compared to the year before, and has continued to climb since. It says 20 people died per day during the first nine months of 2021, while more than 26,600 Canadians have died since 2016.
Mark Haden, an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia who studies addiction and spent decades working in treatment, says the rise in overdose deaths during the pandemic has not been surprising.
“One of the things I say is that addiction is an attachment disorder,” he said. “As we walk the path of addition, we become more and more disconnected.
“COVID as a whole has been a process of disconnection. … We have become very socially isolated, and social isolation is directly and immediately connected to addictions.”
A recent report from the B.C. Coroners Service showed that between January 2019 and January 2022, more than half of illicit drug toxicity deaths happened at home.
Some Canadian cities and provinces are trying to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs in order to curb the number of deaths.
In November 2021, British Columbia became the first province to request the federal government to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs. Vancouver and Toronto have made similar requests, while Vancouver has also asked for approval to create a safe supply of drugs to counter toxic combinations of fentanyl found in the illegal market.
While decriminalization could help reduce the stigma that leads people to use drugs alone indoors, Haden says safe supplies could truly make a difference in saving lives.
“The reason why people are dying is not because they’re accessing opiates,” he said. “If they were accessing opiates through a medical system where they’re given known dosages of known quantities of known products, they wouldn’t die of overdose.”
The federal government has provided funding to safe supply pilot projects in Toronto, Vancouver and Victoria, B.C. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has so far resisted calls to decriminalize personal supplies of illicit drugs.
Health Canada is currently reviewing B.C.’s decriminalization request, but has not yet issued a final decision.
Haden says it’s critical officials act now to ensure those at risk of overdose aren’t forgotten.
“If we were talking about teachers or politicians, what would be an acceptable number of deaths?” he asked.
“I think the baseline would be zero deaths for, say, kindergarten teachers. So why don’t we apply the same rules (to drug users) that we apply to kindergarten teachers?”
— with files from the Canadian Press