February – Beyond numbers: Confronting the social costs of opioid addiction and loss 

Written by Comms Team, February 9, 2021

Throughout 2020, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was often expressed in numbers. Counts of confirmed cases, contacts, tests, and deaths have featured prominently in government announcements, media coverage, and in conversations with friends and family along with messages urging us to stay safe by staying home.

While timely and accurate data remains critical to the ongoing public health response, data alone provides only a partial view of the virus’ impacts. From isolation and unemployment, to illness and the loss of friends and family members, behind every statistic are people whose lives have been affected in serious and sometimes lasting ways.

A similar level of sensitivity must be applied to opioid poisonings, a public health emergency that predates the pandemic but certainly appears to have worsened because of it. This is the conclusion of a series of recent reports that draw links between the restrictions introduced to curb the spread of COVID-19 and the disturbing increase in drug-related harms.

In December, the Public Health Agency of Canada reported 1,628 apparent opioid-related deaths between April and June 2020, representing a 54% increase from the same period in 2019 and the largest quarterly increase since national surveillance began in 2016. Similar trends are emerging at a provincial level, including a review of preliminary coroner data that found that suspected opioid-related deaths increased by 38% in Ontario during the first 15 weeks of the pandemic.

Over the last decade, the deadly impact of opioids has grown to staggering proportions, fueled by an increasingly toxic illicit drug supply. When drugs are obtained from an unregulated supply, their content, purity and potency are unknown, and they may contain adulterants or other substances that increase the risk of overdose. During COVID-19, ongoing border closures and travel restrictions may be impacting the international drug trade and supply networks, leading to the introduction of even more toxic chemicals to drugs obtained on the street.

Most recently, the Toronto Drug Checking Service tested 119 drug samples between January 16 and 29, 2021, and found that many of the samples tested contained noteworthy substances that were not expected. For example, 30% of samples expected to be cocaine did not have any cocaine in it at all. These findings further highlight how contaminated the unregulated drug supply in Ontario has become.

Locally, the impact of a toxic drug supply is being witnessed first-hand. Peterborough is among a number of other mid-sized cities in Ontario experiencing significant and unique challenges with opioid use and addiction, including a high rate of emergency department visits, hospitalizations, and deaths. In 2020, it is estimated that 39 individuals in Peterborough County and City died due to suspected drug-related causes. The full impact of the previous year will not be known until deaths are confirmed by a coroner’s investigation, a process that takes time.

While these numbers may help us understand the magnitude of opioid-related harms in the Peterborough area, we need to remember that behind each startling statistic are individuals who were loved by someone. They were someone’s sibling, parent, child, or friend. Importantly, due to public health restrictions on gathering sizes, individuals and communities impacted by the loss of loved ones have often not had sufficient opportunities to grieve, while access to broader grief and bereavement supports may also be limited.

The current circumstances remind us that during the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to experience the escalating harms of the opioid crisis. To move beyond the numbers, it is clear that more needs to be done to reduce harm and save lives.  While COVID-19 has been a focus, Peterborough Public Health, together with our many agency partners, remains committed to a comprehensive response to substance-related harms that is rooted in the four pillars of prevention, harm reduction, treatment and enforcement.