Crises Colliding: What You Need to Know About COVID-19 & The Opioid Epidemic

What happens if the very measures that are supposed to keep you safe from COVID-19 put you at risk of another deadly crisis? For many of our neighbors struggling with mental health and addiction, the collision between COVID-19 and the opioid crisis has escalated into a new level of urgent threat. Deaths of our neighbors in the Downtown Eastside have been surging since the pandemic started — due to opioid overdoses.

917 people in BC lost their lives to a drug overdose between March to August 2020 — a staggering 75% increase from the 524 lives lost in the same timeframe last year. How is the pandemic contributing to these deaths? And what do you need to know about it?

Staying Home: More Using Alone

You know how isolating it can be during the Pandemic. As a result of physical distancing and the limited capacity of safe injection sites, more people have been using drugs alone — and dying from overdoses alone. With someone present, a life-saving dose of naloxone can immediately reverse a fentanyl overdose before it’s too late.

However, because stay-at-home orders and the fear of COVID-19 are coupled with the shame and stigma of using drugs and mental health struggles, people have been more hesitant than ever to ask someone else to be with them while they self-medicate. Sadly, an unwitnessed overdose can’t be reversed. In 2020, 84% of BC’s illicit drug overdose deaths occurred indoors. And about 89% of people who lost their lives while overdosing were all alone when it happened.

covid opioid alley

Border Closures: Increasing Drug Toxicity

The Canada-US Border closure has helped stop the spread of COVID-19, but it has also disrupted the illicit drug supply — making what’s available on the streets more toxic, and leading to an all-time high in overdose deaths.

Police have speculated that local street suppliers have adapted by mixing more fentanyl into substances, stretching their supply further. Our neighbours who use drugs are at a heartbreakingly high risk of experiencing a fatal overdose.

“The crack helped me forget about everything — the pain. When I walked into UGM, I said to an Outreach Worker, ‘I’m as high as a kite. If you don’t have a bed for me now, I’m not coming back.’ He brought me in right away. That was amazing — I still thank him for that to this day. I look back and know it was a miracle I saw the UGM sign. If I didn’t, I believe I would be dead today, because that’s when fentanyl got into everything, and the opioid overdose crisis started.”

Frank, Former UGM Guest and current UGM Alumni

covid opioid frank

Physical Distancing: Imposing Service Barriers

Using drugs and struggling with addiction is a vicious cycle, but services like recovery programs, safe consumption sites, and detox centres can help lead a person toward transformation.

When BC declared a state of emergency, many organizations were forced to temporarily close or scale down to accommodate physical distancing. This didn’t just create service gaps for the community — it also imposed higher barriers to safety.

For example, overdose prevention sites initially reduced their services by 50%. And some detox and recovery centres required applicants to self-isolate for 14 days prior to starting programs. This has all made it a lot harder for people to receive life-saving care in moments when they’d typically turn to services for help.

For those living in recovery, maintaining sobriety has been more challenging. Many recovery groups moved online. But, as you may have experienced yourself, virtual meetings don’t quite facilitate the same sense of safety, connection, and community. For some, losing these essential things has increased their risk of relapsing — and overdosing.

covid opioid outreach

Thank You for Saving Lives

The COVID-19 crisis has undoubtedly added another layer of complexity to the opioid overdose crisis. But it’s not all bad news. We’ve seen many overcome addiction at UGM and find newfound freedom. We know that our life-saving services are needed now more than ever — and thanks to your support, we are able to provide them. 

If you would like to learn more about the issues impacting our community and what you can do to help, sign up for our email updates below.

By Jenessa Chan & Nicole Mucci