COVID-19 may be affecting illegal drug supply chain, says N.W.T. health official

One of the territory’s top health officials is warning that the discovery of carfentanil in the N.W.T. could represent a deadly shift in the North’s drug scene.

The presence of carfentanil in a suspected drug overdose in the territory is no small thing in the North

A man holds up a small bag containing street drugs in this file photo. Drug users may ingest deadly carfentanil added to other illegal drugs without even knowing it. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

One of the territory's top health officials is warning that the discovery of carfentanil in the N.W.T. could represent a deadly shift in the North's drug scene.

The dangerous drug carfentanil was discovered in at least one of five people believed to have overdosed in June in the N.W.T. No one died in the string of suspected overdoses.

The highly toxic and potentially fatal opioid — 100 times stronger than fentanyl — is not only a danger to even experienced drug users, but to their families, to health-care workers, to emergency responders and anyone in the community who may come in contact with no more than a small amount of the substance.

"It's very dangerous. Very small amounts can be fatal," said deputy chief public health officer Andy Delli Pizzi Thursday. Touching or breathing carfentanil can make a person ill, or worse.

"That's why we're so concerned," Delli Pizzi said. 

"We really want to get the message out to all those involved — people who use substances and all the health-care workers and all the responders and all the families and community members out there … we really want everyone to know that this is very dangerous."

Delli Pizzi said other jurisdictions are noting carfentanil related overdoses and deaths, including the Edmonton area, in which there have been 16 deaths involving carfentanil since May.

Carfentanil is often an unexpected ingredient in other drugs.

According to the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, fentanyl and its analogs, including carfentanil, are common in the illegal drug supply in Canada, including in heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA. A drug user may not even be aware they are consuming the substance.

'We're quite worried'

Delli Pizzi said the COVID-19 pandemic may have affected the drug supply chain to the North. 

"The Canadian centre on substance use considers that the COVID[-19] pandemic might be changing the supply of illicit drugs — might be changing the way that drugs are brought into regions," he said.

"There seems to be a shift here and … other jurisdictions are reporting very severe outcomes. We're quite worried."

Delli Pizzi reiterated the importance of naloxone kits. They counter the effects of carfentanil, but may require more than one dose. Delli Pizzi said the kits are available from pharmacies and health centres in the territory, and they could save a life.

People shouldn't be afraid to call for help.- Andy Delli Pizzi, N.W.T. deputy chief public health officer

"It's really important to have a take-home naloxone [kit] on hand," he said.

He asked people to also remember two other things.

First, there are treatments and therapies available for opioid addictions. He said anyone looking for help should contact their health care provider.

Second, he implored people to call for help if they witness a suspected overdose, even if they may be in possession of illegal drugs. 

"We want people to stay and call 911, or the health centre local emergency member," Delli Pizzi said.

"There's a Good Samaritan Act in Canada so people can't be charged for [simple] possession if they are responding to an overdose or if they are experiencing one, so people shouldn't be afraid to call for help." 

Written by Walter Strong based on an interview by Lawrence Nayally


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