A woman injects herself with crack cocaine at a supervised consumption site Friday, Jan. 22, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

A woman injects herself with crack cocaine at a supervised consumption site Friday, Jan. 22, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Drug users at greater risk of dying as services scale back in second wave of COVID-19

It pins the blame largely on a lack of supports, a corrupted drug supply

Under fluorescent lights, Wendy Muckle surveys the supervised consumption site that sits in quiet contrast to Ottawa’s peppy ByWard Market nearby.

Users filter into the brick building — dubbed “the trailer,” a nod to the service’s former digs — offering up greetings and grins en route to 16 basement booths, each furnished with a chair, a shatter-resistant mirror and a needle disposal box.

The injection facility halved the number of booths to ensure distancing when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in March, resulting in a “huge increase” in overdoses in the surrounding community, says Muckle, who for 20 years has headed Ottawa Inner City Health, which provides health care for vulnerable populations.

She restored full capacity in response to the spike in overdoses but many services remain reduced or accessible only virtually.

“We’ve seen a really frightening, rapid increase in the number of people using drugs in this pandemic,” Muckle says.

“I think people feel like maybe they just aren’t going to make it through this one.”

Drug users face greater dangers as the second wave forces harm reduction sites and outreach programs to curtail their services, leaving at-risk communities out in the cold. Shorter hours, physical distancing measures and a curfew in Quebec, combined with a more lethal drug supply due to border closures, have sent addictions services scrambling to help users across the country as opioid overdoses and the attendant death toll continue to mount.

In British Columbia, fentanyl-related deaths had been on the decline for more than a year until April, when monthly numbers routinely began to double those of 2019.

Deaths linked to fentanyl, a lethally potent synthetic opioid, reached 360 in B.C. between September and November compared to 184 in the same period a year earlier, according to the B.C. Coroners Service.

Opioid-related deaths countrywide could climb as high as 2,000 per quarter in the first half of 2021, far surpassing the peak of nearly 1,200 in the last three months of 2018, according to modelling from the Public Health Agency of Canada.

It pins the blame largely on a lack of supports, a corrupted drug supply and users turning to substances as a way of coping with high stress.

Social services have limited capacity or shut down communal spaces, while programs from meal provision to laundry — some of which are near injection sites, encouraging their use — are now tougher to access.

Canada’s ongoing border shutdown has disrupted the flow of illicit drugs, and dealers looking to stretch their limited supplies are more apt to add potentially toxic adulterants.

Benzodiazepines, or benzos, have been detected in drugs circulating in parts of several provinces. Users can be difficult to rouse and slow to respond to naloxone — the drug that reverses opioid overdoses — and more likely to overdose when fentanyl or other opioids are also in the mix.

“With the benzodiazepine, there is no antidote for that,” said Paula Tookey, program manager for consumption and treatment at the South Riverdale Community Health Centre in Toronto.

“People are sedated deeply for hours, often 10 hours or even more,” forcing workers to turn away other users who then may shoot up alone, she said.

The Riverdale site saw 42 out of 1,110 visitors overdose last month — none fatally — compared to just two overdoses in 700 visits in December 2019, Tookey said.

Pared-down services have also diminished harm reduction sites’ role as de facto community spaces, cutting off a key point of social contact.

“We used to have memorials, which were super important for people because we have constant deaths,” Tookey said.

“A lot of our folks don’t have families … The community and other people in their situations and the workers are kind of the informal family that people have.”

Limits on gathering in the pandemic have also closed off a critical source of knowledge sharing.

“There’s no people to say, ‘Hey, that’s really, really strong, don’t use that much,’” said Karen Ward, a drug rights advocate as well as a drug policy and poverty reduction consultant with the City of Vancouver.

“Those facts, that social information, is really, really important to have. You know, ‘Hey, there’s a bad batch,’ that sort of thing.”

Health authorities run alert systems for poisoned drugs across B.C., but their patchwork structure leaves lives in jeopardy, she said.

In Quebec, Montreal’s four supervised consumption sites have seen visits drop sharply since the 8 p.m. provincial curfew came into force earlier this month.

Even a mobile unit has reached far fewer users, says Kim Charest, outreach program coordinator at L’Anonyme, which runs the portable site.

“Unfortunately, people are less likely to go outside their door basically past 8 p.m.,” she said. “But we do know that people don’t necessarily stop taking drugs.”

ALSO READ: Refrigerated morgue truck deployed in Fraser Health: BC Coroners Service

Even before the curfew, the number of EMS calls where paramedics administered naloxone to opioid users in Montreal and the suburb of Laval nearly doubled last year, reaching 270 compared to 146 in 2019, according to the Urgences-santé ambulance service.

Another danger lies in sharing needles — injection sites provide clean ones — and the risk of blood-borne infections.

Advocates, outreach workers and users are calling for better drug alert systems and broader support services in the short-term.

However, nothing short of decriminalization of possession of small quantities of drugs — requested by Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart to the federal government — and more stable housing will help beat back the tide of overdoses, Muckle says.

“At the end of the day, if people are unhoused, all of the things that you’re doing really have a marginal benefit,” Muckle says.

“You cannot heal in a shelter …. A home is such a fundamental part of our health.”

Meanwhile, the social isolation and unsupervised consumption of tainted drugs ratcheted up by the pandemic bode ill for vulnerable Canadians.

“We had a pretty significant problem with addiction when this pandemic started. We’re going to come out of it way worse.”

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

CoronavirusDrugsoverdose crisis

Just Posted

Longtime SOWINS volunteer Diane Fru (far left) walks with members of her family as they Walk To End Abuse Sunday, June 13, 2021. South Okanagan Women In Needs Society (SOWINS) raised a record amount this year. (Monique Tamminga Western News)
Walk to End Abuse in South Okanagan breaks fundraising record

More than $53,000 raised so far while the pandemic has increased need for SOWINS’ services

The Great Ogopogo Bathtub Race has been held in Summerland as a fundraising event. Do you know which Canadian city introduced this sport? (Black Press file photo)
QUIZ: A summer’s day at the water

How much do you know about boats, lakes and water?

RCMP thanked the public for assistance in finding Benjamin Archie, last seen in Princeton. (RCMP)
Missing Chilliwack man found safe and sound

The 80-year-old had walked away from his home in Chilliwack

.
Princeton’s Spotlight wins two provincial awards for excellence

Publisher takes first place for investigative reporting

Princeton GSAR responds 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In 2020 the crew was called out 34 times, and members spent 721 hours on calls, and 683 hours training. Photo Princeton GSAR Facebook
Teen missing in Manning Park found after 24 hours

Young man spends night on mountain and survives with just a few scrapes

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in a plenary session at the G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, England on Friday June 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada donating 13M surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses to poor countries

Trudeau says the government will pay for 87 million shots to be distributed to poor countries

Premier John Horgan speaks as provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, right, and health minister Adrian Dix look on during a press conference to update on the province’s fall pandemic preparedness plan during a press conference from the press theatre at Legislature in Victoria, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. officials to provide details on Step 2 of COVID reopening plan Monday

Step 2 could allow for larger gatherings and a resumption of recreational travel

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller is seen during a news conference, Wednesday May 19, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Indigenous child-welfare battle heads to court despite calls for Ottawa to drop cases

Feds are poised to argue against two Canadian Human Rights Tribunal rulings

Two-year-old Ivy McLeod laughs while playing with Lucky the puppy outside their Chilliwack home on Thursday, June 10, 2021. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
VIDEO: B.C. family finds ‘perfect’ puppy with limb difference for 2-year-old Ivy

Ivy has special bond with Lucky the puppy who was also born with limb difference

A million-dollar ticket was sold to an individual in Vernon from the Lotto Max draw Friday, June 11, 2021. (Photo courtesy of BCLC)
Lottery ticket worth $1 million sold in Vernon

One lucky individual holds one of 20 tickets worth $1 million from Friday’s Lotto Max draw

“65 years, I’ve carried the stories in my mind and live it every day,” says Jack Kruger. (Athena Bonneau)
‘Maybe this time they will listen’: Survivor shares stories from B.C. residential school

Jack Kruger, living in Syilx territory, wasn’t surprised by news of 215 children’s remains found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School

A logging truck carries its load down the Elaho Valley near in Squamish, B.C. in this file photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chuck Stoody
Squamish Nation calls for old-growth logging moratorium in its territory

The nation says 44% of old-growth forests in its 6,900-square kilometre territory are protected while the rest remain at risk

Flowers and cards are left at a makeshift memorial at a monument outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School to honour the 215 children whose remains are believed to have been discovered buried near the city in Kamloops, B.C., on Monday, May 31, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
‘Pick a Sunday:’ Indigenous leaders ask Catholics to stay home, push for apology

Indigenous leaders are calling on Catholics to stand in solidarity with residential school survivors by not attending church services

Most Read