British Columbia

Don't use drugs alone, health experts say, even with physical distancing guidelines in place

“By far the bigger risk in the Downtown Eastside right now is people dying of a drug overdose,” said Dr. Patricia Daly. Her comments reflect B.C.'s challenges managing two health emergencies at the same time: COVID-19 and overdose deaths.

Overdoses far more deadly on the DTES than COVID-19, Dr. Patricia Daly says

The Overdose Prevention Society on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside offers a space for people to use drugs under supervision. Health experts say physical distancing guidelines during the coronavirus pandemic should not lead people to use drugs alone. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

Top health officials say even with social distancing guidelines in place, people who use drugs should not be using alone.

During a presentation to Vancouver city council Tuesday afternoon, Vancouver Coastal Health chief medical health officer Dr. Patricia Daly said she believes some people are misunderstanding guidance on keeping physical distances to help prevent COVID-19 transmission.

Daly was asked about some single-room occupancy buildings in the city's Downtown Eastside neighbourhood banning visitors and guests.

"By far the bigger risk in the Downtown Eastside right now is people dying of a drug overdose," Daly said. "We should not be putting people in a situation where they're alone in their rooms consuming their substances.

"I would rather we have guests come in and I would tell people there's very low risk of COVID-19 and it's safer to have someone with you when you're consuming substances."

Vancouver Coastal Health chief medical health officer Dr. Patricia Daly, seen here in a 2018 photo, said of B.C.'s two health emergencies, the overdose death emergency remains the greater danger to residents of the Downtown Eastside. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Daly said people should take guidelines on social distancing as "broad advice" and social distancing should not cause people to put themselves at greater risk.

Daly's comments reflect the challenges of B.C. managing two health emergencies at the same time: two emergencies that advocates and experts say disproportionately impact vulnerable people, like many residents of the Downtown Eastside.

Drugs more toxic during emergency

Daly said directives forbidding public gatherings of more than 50 people are for events like concerts. They shouldn't prevent SRO buildings from allowing visitors inside, for instance.

"I think people have over-interpreted the recommendations to socially distance and in the Downtown Eastside I am concerned it's leading to increased risk of overdose death," Daly said.

In late March, Vancouver recorded eight suspected overdose deaths in one week, the highest weekly toll since August 2019.

Daly also showed council data suggesting use of overdose prevention sites in Vancouver Coastal Health has decreased rapidly in recent weeks.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, speaking later Tuesday, assured people that overdose prevention sites in B.C. are hygienic and have made changes to reduce chances of COVID-19 transmission. (Vancouver Coastal Health)

Later Tuesday, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry echoed some of Daly's concerns about people using alone.

She said there have been many modifications of supervised consumption sites and overdose prevention sites in B.C. to reduce COVID risks to drug users and staff. Those include increased physical distancing and measures for hand hygiene.

"Our overdose prevention sites and supervised consumption sites are very clean," Henry said. 

"There's been a lot of work done on that … Early on, there was a lot of confusion about how do we do this in a way that protects everybody."

Henry also said the toxicity of street drugs has "increased dramatically" as drug importers' efforts are stymied by changes or elimination of normal trade and travel routes. 

"There's been a complex mixture," she said.

With files from Justin McElroy