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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A dose of COVID-19 vaccine is prepared at a vaccination clinic in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
39 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health region

The total number of cases in the region since the pandemic began is now at 7,334

The Site C Dam location is seen along the Peace River in Fort St. John, B.C., Tuesday, April 18, 2017. The cost of British Columbia’s Site C hydroelectric dam has grown to $16 billion and the completion has been moved up a year to 2025. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
BC Liberal energy critic blasts ‘lack of transparency’ on Site C

MLA Tom Shypitka says Site C going ahead is a ‘good thing’, blames NDP for mismanagement

Kootenay-Columbia MP Rob Morrison speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons. File photo.
Kootenay-Columbia MP supports motion condemning Uighur genocide

Rob Morrison says labelling Uighur persecution as a genocide sends a message to Chinese government

The BC Prosecution Service announced last year that it was appointing lawyer Marilyn Sandford as a special prosecutor to review the case, following media inquiries about disclosure issues linked to a pathologist involved in the matter. (Black Press Media files)
Possible miscarriage of justice in Cranbrook woman’s conviction in toddler drowning: prosecutor

Tammy Bouvette was originally charged with second-degree murder but pleaded guilty in 2013 to the lesser charge

A rainbow shining on Kelowna General Hospital on May 12, 2020 International Nurses Day. (Steve Wensley - Prime Light Media)
New COVID cases trending down in Interior Health

24 new cases reported Thursday, Feb. 25, death at Kelowna General Hospital

Abbotsford’s Kris Collins turned to TikTok out of boredom when the provincial COVID-19 lockdown began in March 2020. She now has over 23 million followers on the video app. Photo: Submitted
Internet famous: Abbotsford’s Kris Collins is a TikTok comedy queen

Collins has found surprise stardom alone with a phone

A Vancouver restaurant owner was found guilty of violating B.C.’s Human Rights Code by discriminating against customers on the basis of their race. (Pixabay)
Vancouver restaurant owner ordered to pay $4,000 to customers after racist remark

Referring to patrons as ‘you Arabs’ constitutes discrimination under B.C.’s Human Rights Code, ruling deems

Nanaimo children’s author and illustrator Lindsay Ford’s latest book is ‘Science Girl.’ (Photo courtesy Lindsay Ford)
B.C. children’s writer encourages girls to pursue the sciences in new book

Lindsay Ford is holding a virtual launch for latest book, ‘Science Girl’

Pig races at the 145th annual Chilliwack Fair on Aug. 12, 2017. Monday, March 1, 2021 is Pig Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of Feb. 28 to March 6

Pig Day, Canadian Bacon Day and Grammar Day are all coming up this week

Staff from the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, passersby, RCMP and Nanaimo Fire Rescue carried a sick 300-kilogram steller sea lion up the steep bluff at Invermere Beach in north Nanaimo in an attempt to save the animal’s life Thursday. (Photo courtesy Marine Mammal Rescue Centre)
300-kilogram sea lion muscled up from B.C. beach in rescue attempt

Animal dies despite efforts of Nanaimo marine mammal rescue team, emergency personnel and bystanders

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Doctors and counsellors warn of an increase in panic attacks, anxiety, depression and suicide ideas between ages 10 to 14, in Campbell River. ( Black Press file photo)
Extended pandemic feeding the anxieties of B.C.’s youth

Parents not sure what to do, urged to reach out for help

Kara Sorensen, diagnosed with lung cancer in July, says it’s important for people to view her as healthy and vibrant, rather than sick. (Photo courtesy of Karen Sorensen)
B.C. woman must seek treatment overseas for inoperable lung cancer

Fundraising page launched on Karen Sorensen’s behalf, with a goal of $250,000

Gina Adams as she works on her latest piece titled ‘Undying Love’. (Submitted photo)
‘Toothless’ the kitty inspires B.C. wood carver to break out the chainsaw

Inspired by plight of a toothless cat, Gina Adams offers proceeds from her artwork to help animals

Most Read