Joint Statement from the Co-Chairs of the Special Advisory Committee on the Epidemic of Opioid Overdoses – Latest National Data on the Overdose Crisis


March 24, 2021 | Ottawa, ON | Public Health Agency of Canada

Today, the co-chairs of the federal, provincial and territorial Special Advisory Committee on the Epidemic of Opioid Overdoses—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 updated data on opioid- and stimulant-related harms in Canada, covering the period of January 1, 2016 to September 30, 2020.

COVID-19 has been part of our daily realities for more than a year now and we recognize the hardships that Canadians, including people who use substances, have experienced and continue to face. Over the course of 2020, the overdose crisis has worsened in Canada, in part due to the increasingly toxic illegal drug supply, heightened feelings of isolation, stress, anxiety and depression, and greater barriers in accessing health and social supports, including life-saving harm reduction and treatment services.

The national data released today offers further insight into the devastating impact of the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic on people who use substances and their families, friends, and communities across the country. From April 2020 to September 2020, 3,351 people died in Canada from an opioid-related overdose. Tragically, the 1,705 deaths that occurred between July and September 2020 represent the highest national quarterly count of deaths reported by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) since 2016. Emergency medical services units across Canada responded to 8,591 overdoses during that same period. Additionally, more than half of accidental opioid-related deaths between April 2020 and September 2020 also involved a stimulant (e.g., cocaine, methamphetamine). Individuals who use more than one substance at the same time are at an increased risk of overdose and death.

Opioid overdoses can also result in permanent harms. New analyses indicate that more than 4% of those hospitalized with opioid-related overdoses have brain injuries due to a lack of oxygen. Effects of these injuries can be life long and include paralysis, reduced physical and cognitive functioning, and behavioural changes. Even though emergency interventions can be effective in helping to save the life of someone who has experienced an overdose, permanent harms can persist that can drastically impact that person’s quality of life. These findings highlight why our collective efforts to prevent overdoses remain critical.

In light of the record numbers of overdoses and deaths reported in this release, our focus remains clear. We must continue to bolster support for solutions that help people who use substances or live with addiction during COVID-19 and beyond. This includes: continued support for harm reduction measures; providing a safer supply of drugs to people who are at risk of overdose; increasing access to, distribution of, and training on how to use take-home naloxone kits; strengthening awareness of how to reduce harms of opioids and other drugs; and ending the stigma surrounding substance use.

The Wellness Together Canada portal helps people take their first step to getting connected to substance use and mental health support, resources, and counselling for free. If you use drugs, you can reduce your risk of experiencing harms by not mixing drugs and not using drugs alone. Virtual support is available through apps and phone lines to help maintain physical distancing during COVID-19. Naloxone temporarily reverses opioid overdose and is available without prescription. If you witness an overdose, always call 9-1-1 (or your local emergency number), administer naloxone if you have it and stay until help arrives. The Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act provides some legal protection to people seeking emergency help in responding to a drug overdose. If you have a friend or a loved one who is experiencing a substance use issue, try reaching out to them with compassion and respect.

Dr. Theresa Tam
Chief Public Health Officer of Canada
Co-chair, Special Advisory Committee on the Epidemic of Opioid Overdoses

Dr. Jennifer Russell
Chief Medical Health Officer, New Brunswick
Co-chair, Special Advisory Committee on the Epidemic of Opioid Overdoses

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