Opioid overdose deaths hit record numbers during COVID-19 pandemic

Dr. Theresa Tam -- Daily Herald Screen Capture

Opioid overdose deaths are on the rise according to data released by the Public Health Agency of Canada on Friday, with several provinces setting records for overdose deaths during the first half of the year.

There were 2,670 deaths due to opioid overdoses between January and June 2020, 74 of which were in Saskatchewan. If those trends continue, Saskatchewan will be one of several provinces to seek a spike in opioid overdose deaths.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Medical Health Officer, said those numbers were a tragic reminder of broader damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were seeing early signs that opioid toxicity deaths were declining in parts of the country,” Tam said during a prepared speech delivered on Friday. “Sadly, as the latest data show, we are now seeing a loss in these hard-fought gains, as COVID-19 and associated public health measures have impacted the toxic illegal drug supply as well as the accessibility of substance use supports.”

There were 1,628 opioid toxicity deaths across Canada from April to June. That’s the highest number recorded for a single quarter since national surveillance of overdose trends began in 2016.

Tam called that a devastating trend, and urged those impacted by substance abuse to seek out harm reduction services or other treatment options. She added that a decrease in access to mental health supports, combined with the decline in the supply of drugs, are likely causing the increase in overdoses.

“For anyone experiencing issues with substance abuse, know that there are options to get help,” Tam said.

Ontario has the highest number of opioid overdoses so far this year with 1,075, followed by British Columbia with 759 and Alberta with 449. Data for Manitoba and Nunavut is not included in the national numbers.

Canada reported 3,811 deaths due to opioid overdoses in 2019, and 4,382 in 2018.

Opioid deaths aren’t the only source of concern in Saskatchewan. The province is on pace for a record number of total drug overdoses this year, with 122 confirmed deaths as of Dec. 1. Another 201 suspected drug overdose deaths still under investigation. The previous record of 171 was set in 2018.

Canada hits 7,000 new daily case mark for the first time

Health officials reported more than 7,000 new COVID-19 cases in a single day for the first time on Thursday, driven largely by a single day record increases in Ontario. There are now 76,310 active cases across the country, with health officials reporting an average of 6,650 cases every day over the past week.

Canada reported 117 COVID-related deaths on Thursday, bringing the national total to 13,916. More than 12.8 million Canadians have been tested for the virus, with 3.7 per cent testing positive.

Prime Minster Justin Trudeau said that’s a sign Canadians need to be more careful than ever heading into the Christmas break.

“We need to take this very seriously, as numbers continue to head in the wrong direction,” Trudeau told reporters during a media update on Friday. “Our fight against the virus is not over, even as we’re preparing to say goodbye, or good riddance, to 2020.”

Canada is on track to receive 200,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer-BioNTech, and 180,000 doses from Moderna before the end of December. They expect to receive another 125,000 doses per week from Pfizer through January.

Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand said they’ll have enough doses to vaccinate every Canadian by September 2021. However, like Trudeau, Anand said Canadians need to stay vigilant.

“It is too early to declare victory over COVID-19,” she told reporters. “The coming weeks and months are absolutely crucial in protecting one another and ensuring that Canada emerges from this pandemic in as strong a position as possible.”

Trudeau also faced questions over the vaccine delivery timeline. The United States expects to distribute 40 million doses of the vaccine by the end of December, a number Canada won’t hit until well into the New Year.

On Friday, Trudeau said they’re focused on doing what’s best for Canadians, and that may look different than they do south of the border.

“We’re focused on our own process to make sure that as many Canadians as possible get vaccinated as quickly as possible, with vaccines that are safe and effective and approved by Health Canada,” he explained. “We are of course watching approvals elsewhere around the world, but the decisions made as to what is right for Canadians and what is safe for Canadians will be done by the Canadian experts who are putting our safety first.”

CERB repayments still under investigation

The Prime Minister sought to soothe fears rather than enflame them when asked about the Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA) letters delivered to residents who may have incorrectly received Canada Emergency Response Benefits (CERB).

The CRA sent out more than 441,000 letters warning CERB recipients that they may have to repay thousands of dollars in benefits. On Friday, Trudeau said good-faith mistakes would not be penalized or pursued.

“People need to know we were serious when we said we would be there for people,” he said. “We didn’t deliver support to millions of Canadians who need it just to claw it back at Christmas.”

Trudeau acknowledged that some people likely were trying to commit fraud when they applied for CERB. However, he said the government decided to help people as quickly as possible at the start of the pandemic, rather than scrutinize every application. He’s confident that approach was the right one, even if people tried to take advantage of it.

“We understood that after the fact we would have to look at things and see if it was done fairly, (or) if people took advantage of this in improper ways,” Trudeau explained. “Like I said, good faith mistakes will not be punished, but there are people who committed fraud and companies who perhaps profited in ways that is not right, and those are things that we will look at.”

Feds provide $30-million for food security in Indigenous communities

The federal government also revealed plans for dividing up the $100-million in funding for emergency food security that they announced back in October.

The largest chunk will go towards the Indigenous Community Support Fund. They’ll get $30-million to bolster food security in First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities.

Food Banks Canada and the Breakfast Club of Canada will both receive $18.5-million each, while another $8.85-million will go to the Salvation Army. Second Harvest and the Community Food Centres Canada will receive $8.9-million each, and La Tablée des Chefs will get $1.34-million. Roughly $5-million is destined for reserves.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said the money would help families as their needs increase over the holidays, but she told Canadians it may not be enough. She encouraged them to make donations as usual over the coming weeks, just like they would during a normal Christmas.

“Every donation made will help make life a little brighter for Canadians in need during these challenging times,” Bibeau said in a media release.