Today, the co-chairs of the federal, provincial and territorial Special Advisory Committee on the Epidemic of Opioid Overdoses (SAC)—Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer and Dr. Jennifer Russell, New Brunswick’s Chief Medical Officer of Health—issued the following statement on the release of latest modelling projections on opioid-related deaths and data on opioid- and stimulant-related harms in Canada.
The opioid overdose crisis has continued to worsen significantly during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada. The latest national data confirms that 2020 was the worst year for overdoses and deaths in Canada since Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) started to monitor the crisis in 2016. Sadly, 6,214 people throughout the country died last year due to opioid-related overdoses. This means that in 2020, on average, 17 people died and 14 people were hospitalized every day due to opioid-related overdoses.
Tragically, new modelling of projections from the PHAC suggest that opioid-related deaths could continue to increase, or may remain high, throughout 2021. Current projections under this model suggest that we may be trending towards between 1,600 and 2,000 people in Canada losing their lives each quarter this year. Although not a prediction, simulation models like this one underscore the critical importance of further action to address this crisis, and can help governments and public health organizations understand what might happen under different scenarios and steer actions to help save lives.
A number of factors have likely contributed to a worsening of the opioid overdose crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada, including the increasingly toxic and unpredictable drug supply; increased feelings of isolation, stress, anxiety and depression; and the limited availability or accessibility of health and social services for people who use drugs, including life-saving harm reduction and treatment.
Governments, organizations, and people across the country, including those with lived and living experience of substance use, are working together on a variety of actions that can help people who use drugs and save lives. These actions include improving access to and distribution of naloxone; delivering overdose response training; expanding harm reduction and treatment services like safer supply programs; opioid agonist treatment; supervised consumption and overdose prevention sites; and mental health supports; and reducing barriers to care such as stigma.
With the on-going impact of this crisis, we, on behalf of our provincial and territorial colleagues, are stressing the importance of continued collective efforts to address substance use and help people get the right supports. While substance-related harms affect communities across the country and people from all walks of life, it will also be especially important to support those that are the most impacted, such as communities in Western Canada and Ontario, men, and Canadians aged 20 to 49.
At the same time, we must continue to gather evidence to better understand the complexity of the overdose crisis, including other factors playing a role in substance-related harms, such as people’s living situations and the use of more than one substance at the same time. For example, the latest data indicates that half of opioid-related deaths in 2020 also involved a stimulant (e.g., cocaine, methamphetamine), underscoring the polysubstance nature of the overdose crisis.
The data released today demonstrate the devastating broader impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, including on people who use drugs. We encourage all decision makers, health care professionals, service providers, and families and friends who are supporting loved ones who are struggling with substance use to learn more about the latest evidence and how they can make a difference to help prevent overdoses and save lives.