As opioid-related deaths in Yukon double, officials say COVID-19 pandemic is amplifying the crisis

The Yukon government says it's planning to increase testing sites and harm education education.

13 people have died from drug overdoses this year, 11 of those linked to opioids

A file photo of close up of fentanyl tablet split in half with powder showing. (CBC)

The Yukon government says it has plans to step up its response to the opioid crisis, following an uptick in the number of deaths related to the drug so far this year. 

The Yukon Coroner's Service says 13 people have died from drug overdoses in 2020, with six of those occurring in June alone. Heather Jones, chief coroner, said eleven of this year's deaths involved opioids.

That's almost double the number of annual deaths related to the drug since 2016, when the opioid crisis made its way into the Yukon, she said. 

"Clearly, the numbers we are seeing this year are cause for real concern and deep sadness," Jones said in a Yukon government press conference Friday morning. 

She said six people died from drug overdoses last year (four were linked to opioids), nine people died in 2018 (five were linked to opioids) and seven people died in both 2017 and 2016, all related to opioids. 

Chief says people are more isolated, using alone

Kwanlin Dün Chief Doris Bill said Indigenous people have been disproportionately impacted by the overdose crisis. Nine of this year's opioid victims have been First Nations. 

Bill said the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the issue. 

"When the virus hit, we told people to distance themselves or stay home to curb the spread," she said. "Unfortunately, this also led to people being more isolated, to be alone and to use alone. At the same time we saw a decrease in supports and services reaching out to vulnerable citizens."

Heather Jones, Yukon's chief coroner, says the first seven months of 2020 have had nearly double the number of drug overdose cases as previous years. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Dr. Brendan Hanely, Yukon's chief medical officer of health, agreed the uptick in drug overdoses is likely a reflection of the covid-related restrictions.

"We continue to strive to find that middle way that balances the risks of COVID infection with other significant risks of shutting down communities and isolating people from friends, loved ones and critical services and supports," he said. 

Bill said the increase in deaths has indicated a number of "gaps" in the system. She said Yukon needs more dedicated funding for a variety of treatment options. 

Yukon promises increases testing, harm reduction

Pauline Frost, minister of health and social services, said the spike in the number of overdose deaths is devastating and acknowledged there is much work to "shift Yukon's approach and understanding" related to substance use.

She said the territory is working to expand drug testing capacity and harm reduction to include the supply of safe inhalation kits for smoking crack, injection kits and meth pipes. She said they will also "ramp up" the availability of naloxone kits and training. Naloxone is used to counter the effects of an opioid overdose.

Frost also said her department is exploring what a supervised consumption site and safer supply chain would look like. She said COVID-19 has made the street supply even more unpredictable. 

Frost gave no specific details on timelines or concrete actions, but said she's working with partners in Yukon communities and looking at public health approaches taken by other jurisdictions.