Canada’s top doctor says public health measures put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19 may have made it harder for people who use drugs to access needed support.

In her daily COVID-19 briefing, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam marked International Overdose Awareness Day by urging Canadians to be more compassionate and to de-stigmatize substance use.

Tam also outlined how the pandemic has exacerbated Canada’s ongoing opioid crisis, with social isolation measures increasing the risk of overdoses.

Several provinces have reported spikes in overdose deaths since the start of COVID-19. Since March, the number of overdose deaths in British Columbia has consistently been higher than the number of COVID-19 related deaths.

The province saw a significant spike in overdose deaths in March, with each month’s count surpassing the previous one. In July, B.C. Coroners Service reported 175 deaths caused by illicit substances, including fentanyl. So far this year, 208 British Columbians have died from COVID-19, and 909 have died from overdoses.

In Ontario, public health services reported spikes in overdose deaths in Toronto. The city’s public health service said paramedics saw “the worst cluster of suspected opioid overdose-related calls involving death” since 2017, in a report published in July. Deaths from overdoses have been taking place across Alberta and Nova Scotia as well.

Tam has previously suggested there needs to be a discussion around the decriminalization of illegal substances.

As Canada dealt with the pandemic, the country's ongoing opioid epidemic only got worse.

“You cannot arrest your way out of an opioid crisis,” she said during her daily pandemic briefing on August 21. “It is escalating as we speak, some of the gains that were made prior to COVID-19 have unfortunately been lost.”

The federal government launched a national consultation on supervised consumption sites on Aug. 15, in response to the pandemic worsening the country’s existing opioid crisis. But while the 60-day government consultation progresses, existing consumption sites face a lack of funding, with many also running at half-capacity under new COVID-19 restrictions.

Amid International Overdose Awareness Day, Canada’s busiest supervised consumption site — in Lethbridge, Alta. — was shut down on Monday after the province pulled funding. The facility, run by a non-profit organization called ARCHES, was audited by the Alberta government, which found instances of financial mismanagement.

Instead, Alberta Health Services will be providing supervised consumption services through a mobile overdose prevention site.

“We must continue to work together to prevent overdose deaths and reduce substance-related harms,” said Tam in her briefing. “Just as we are working hard to reduce the impact of COVID-19 on Canadians.”

Premila D'Sa / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer