Opioid-related deaths in Ottawa nearly double during pandemic

Harm reduction workers in Ottawa are reeling from a "devastating" near-doubling of opioid-related deaths stemming from a toxic drug supply exacerbated by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

123 people died from overdoses in 2020, 65 in 2019: Ottawa Public Health

Opioid deaths on the rise as pandemic isolation continues

2 years ago
Duration 1:10
Anne Marie Hopkins, a manager at Ottawa Inner City Health, says the pandemic has increased isolation among the city’s most vulnerable residents, leading to more overdoses as people use drugs alone.

Harm reduction workers in Ottawa say they're reeling from a "devastating" near-doubling of opioid-related deaths stemming from a toxic drug supply exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The latest figures released by Ottawa Public Health (OPH) show 123 people died from confirmed opioid overdoses in 2020, compared to 65 deaths in 2019.

But the actual number of drug overdose deaths may be much higher, as the coroner suspects overdoses caused 95 other deaths last year.

"It's devastating, because it's just loss after loss for our community, for our staff and our clients," said Anne Marie Hopkins with Ottawa Inner City Health. "The things we used to do to keep our community safe aren't working any more because the toxic drug supply has gotten so much worse."

In Ottawa, 70 per cent of the opioid-related deaths were among men, the figures from OPH show.

Hopkins said she's seen overdose deaths spike among people using drugs alone in apartments and rooming houses.

They are going down so hard and so fast [that] those 15-minute checks aren't enough."- Anne Marie Hopkins

They're also dying in shelters where there are safety measures in place to monitor users, said Hopkins, who manages the 24-hour supervised consumption site at the Shepherds of Good Hope shelter at the edge of the ByWard Market.

Regular safety checks have sometimes been ineffective during the pandemic, with people dying before staff can even administer naloxone, she said.

"Before COVID we didn't have overdose deaths for a long time. We check their beds, we check the bathrooms, we check outside, in the alleyways around the shelter," said Hopkins.

"But now, with some of these overdoses, they are going down so hard and so fast [that] those 15-minute checks aren't enough."

A COVID-19 isolation site has been set up at the Routhier Community Centre for homeless people who've tested positive for the virus. (Hugo Belanger/CBC)

Interventions on the rise

At the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre supervised consumption site, program director Rob Boyd said his staff are administering naloxone much more often to save lives.

"Some months we've been as high as 70 interventions. The rate of overdosing at our site has increased threefold," said Boyd.

COVID-19 has also forced the centre to close its safe drug check program, where clients could have their supply analyzed before using.

Boyd said Ottawa Inner City Health's decision to open a supervised consumption site at the Routhier Community Centre, which is serving as an isolation centre for homeless people who've tested positive for COVID-19, has likely saved lives.

Rob Boyd runs harm prevention programs at the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre and says the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to an increasingly dangerous street drug supply. (Zoom)

Shouldn't be 'death sentence'

According to the provincial government, 2,426 people have died in Ontario from opioid overdoses in 2020, with 71 per cent found in private dwellings and 16 per cent considered homeless.

The greatest rise in deaths is occurring in users between the ages of 25 and 44.

Earlier this week, Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox & Addington Public Health warned of a toxic batch of drugs which resulted in a record number of deaths in April and May. 

Drug analysis by the health authority indicated the presence of fentanyl, carfentanil, and benzodiazepine analogues in the local drug supply.

Both Boyd and Hopkins believe COVID-19 border closures have reduced  imports and have led to growing toxicity in unregulated drugs.

With opioids being made domestically, manufacturers have started using available chemicals that were much more dangerous. Part of the solution, harm reduction workers say, is to give more people access to a regulated supply of opioids so they don't have to buy drugs on the street.

"Using drugs should not be a death sentence," said Hopkins. "If we had more services for people who used drugs ... it wouldn't be so deadly for someone with a substance disorder."


  • An earlier version of this story said Ottawa Public Health decided to open a supervised consumption site at the Routhier Community Centre. It was Ottawa Inner City Health's decision.
    May 20, 2021 11:33 AM ET

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