Opioid-Related Deaths in Ontario Surge During COVID-19 Pandemic: Report

November 11, 2020 Updated: November 12, 2020

A new report (pdf) suggests Ontario’s COVID-19 restrictions may have led to a near 40 percent spike in opioid-related deaths during the pandemic.

“Despite the intention to reduce the impact of COVID-19, there is concern that these measures could lead to unintended harms,” the report says, citing how the province’s restrictions has led to a “reduced capacity for pharmacies, outpatient clinics, and harm reduction sites providing care to people who use drugs.”

Corinne Hart, a professor from Ryerson University’s Daphne Cockwell School of Nursing suggests the COVID-19 measures are likely causing the spike.

“Isolation, while on the one hand protects people from getting sick from the virus, increases the likelihood that people are A: using substances and B: using substances in places where they don’t have supports available to them to mitigate things that might happen—overdoses, or other impacts of taking those substances,” Hart told Kitchener Today.

The report, released by Public Health Ontario on Tuesday, says that the province saw a surge of 38.2 percent in opioid-related deaths (695 deaths) in the first 15 weeks of the pandemic compared to the 15 weeks preceding it (503 deaths), and if left unchecked, could see more than 2,200 deaths by end of 2020, an increase of 50 percent in the death toll from 2019. 

Men make up the majority of the opioid-related deaths at 78 percent, a significant increase from the pre-pandemic 69.7 percent. When it comes to age, nearly 90 percent of the deaths come from people between 25 and 64 years old. Opioid-related deaths of seniors aged 65 years and over more than doubled during the pandemic. The report also highlights that most of the confirmed deaths (about 96 percent) come from accidental causes.

In addition, about 74 percent of those who died from opioid use were alone at the time, meaning no one was present to resuscitate or administer naloxone—a medication used to counter the effects of opioid overdose—to them to save them. 

Fentanyl, a pain medication, is identified as the main cause of deaths (87.2 percent) during the pandemic. The report suggests it may be due to the “changes in the unregulated drug supply and changing access to prescription opioids observed early in the pandemic, which may have led to an increased reliance on unregulated drug supplies, and the increasing toxicity of the unregulated (‘street’) drug supply available.” 

In addition, neighborhoods with higher ethnic diversity have seen more deaths from opioid use during the pandemic compared to pre-pandemic, data from the report shows. Large urban centres also contributed to over 60 percent of deaths compared to about 9 percent in rural areas. 

The report urges Ontario policymakers to quickly “provide access to harm reduction services, a range of low-barrier opioid agonist treatment options, a safer supply of drugs, other health and social supports, and integration of these services into hotels used to house people during the pandemic.” (page 17)