New report details opioid-related overdoses in Ontario during COVID-19 pandemic

News Release

10 Nov 2020

TORONTO – A growing number of men are dying of opioid-related overdoses, and there has been a shift toward opioid-related deaths occurring more often in neighbourhoods with higher ethnic diversity, according to a new report that offers insight into the spike in opioid-related deaths in Ontario since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report, released today, reveals new information about the approximately 700 lives lost to opioid-related overdose in Ontario since mid-March: who they were, where they lived, and the circumstances of their deaths. The declaration of a State of Emergency in Ontario included public health restrictions that resulted in reduced capacity for pharmacies, outpatient clinics, and harm reduction sites providing care to people who use drugs. 

The report found a nearly 40 per cent spike in opioid-related deaths since the onset of the pandemic, with a high frequency of Ontarians dying alone without resuscitation attempts or naloxone administration.

“This report should act as a call to action for governments and clinicians to provide the supports and services needed to address the needs of people who use drugs across Ontario,” said Dr. Tara Gomes, a Scientist at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute of St. Michael’s Hospital and a Principal Investigator of the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network (ODPRN)

“In particular, the findings point to a need for rapid access to harm reduction services, such as consumption and treatment services and low-barrier access to treatment and a safer supply of drugs. Streamlined integration of these services into alternative housing that is being provided to people during the pandemic is needed.”

— Dr. Tara Gomes

The report was led by ODPRN, housed at St. Michael’s Hospital of Unity Health Toronto, the Office of the Chief Coroner for Ontario, Public Health Ontario and the Centre on Drug Policy Evaluation (CDPE). Information on reported cases and rates of opioid–related harms over time can be seen on Public Health Ontario’s online Interactive Opioid Tool.

The report found a significant trend toward more opioid-related deaths in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods with higher proportions of people who are recent immigrants and/or racialized. This parallels trends in COVID-19 infection and deaths, the researchers note.

The report also found:

  • Nearly 90 per cent of all opioid-related deaths during the pandemic period were among those aged 24-64. 
  • There were more opioid-related deaths among people who were using drugs outdoors and fewer in public indoor spaces. These factors are all likely influenced by public health measures aimed to promote physical distancing, and seasonal patterns during warmer months.
  • It appears that the drug supply is becoming more dangerous, with large rises in fentanyl, stimulant and benzodiazepine involvement in overdose deaths. 
  • Researchers estimate there will be more than 2,200 opioid-related deaths in 2020 if the weekly rate of opioid deaths continues for the rest of the year. This would be the highest ever in Ontario, rising from 1,512 in 2019. 

“The report shows an increasing number of preventable opioid-related deaths during the pandemic, particularly among young men. It must not be forgotten that each of these deaths represents the loss of an individual who was part of a family, had friends and was a member of a community. There is a need to continue to work together to ensure adequate support and services are in place during the pandemic and beyond, to prevent further deaths,”

— Dr. Dirk Huyer, Chief Coroner for Ontario

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Updated 10 Nov 2020