COVID-19 messaging tied to overdose spike, front-line workers say

Ottawa police reported four deaths this weekend that they believed were overdose-related, and some front-line workers say the messaging around the COVID-19 pandemic may be causing overdoses to go up.

4 overdose deaths reported Saturday by Ottawa police

Front-line workers in Ottawa-Gatineau say more people are using street drugs in an unsupervised environment due to their fears of catching COVID-19. (Briar Stewart/CBC News)

The number of drug overdoses in the Ottawa region appears to be on the rise, and some front-line workers say the messaging around the COVID-19 pandemic may be playing a part.

On Saturday, the Ottawa Police Service reported four deaths they believed were overdose-related.

The warning came two days after the Eastern Ontario Health Unit and police in Cornwall, Ont., issued a joint warning about "purple heroin" — a mix of fentanyl and benzodiazepines — causing a spike in overdoses in the Cornwall area.

The Ontario Provincial Police also reported earlier in November that detachments in Renfrew County had investigated six suspected drug overdose deaths in the last few months.

"We've been dealing with an increase of overdoses since the beginning of the pandemic. Sometimes we respond to 10 overdoses at our site in one day," said Tali Magboo Cahill, nursing team lead for the supervised consumption site at the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre in Ottawa.

Many people are now using alone, Magboo Cahill said, because of the stigma around drug use combined with the messaging around the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We tell people, you know, that they need to social distance. We tell them [to] only go out for essential things. Well, we also tell people not to use alone, and that's kind of a mixed message."

"We want people to come to our supervised consumption sites, but they're afraid of getting sick just like everybody else is."

Tali Magboo Cahill is the team lead for the supervised consumption site at the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre in Ottawa. She says she worries about people using drugs alone during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jean-François Poudrier/Radio-Canada)

'Truly worrying'

That fear is also driving people on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River to use drugs in a similarly isolated manner, said Annie Castonguay, director of the Outaouais Regional AIDS Action Office.

Castonguay told Radio-Canada it's clear the pandemic has coincided with a rise in overdoses, noting that COVID-19 has had a severe effect on everyone's mental health — including people who live on the streets or are in recovery for drug addictions.

"It's truly worrying. There are definitely more overdoses than usual. Among our close users who we see regularly, there are those who've died," she said in a French-language interview.

Magboo Cahill said the composition of street drugs, particularly opioids, has also become increasingly unpredictable with the borders closed due to COVID-19.

Drugs are being mixed with a growing list of additives, she said, with benzodiazepines like sleeping pills being among the most worrying.

"It makes people really harder to rouse from an overdose than they would have been previously," she said.

Magboo Cahill said there needs to be an increase in the number of supervised consumption sites, as well as a safer supply programs.

She also said she agreed with comments by Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, that the country needs to have a serious discussion about decriminalizing simple drug possession.

About the Author

Natalia is a multi-platform journalist in Ottawa. She has also worked for CBC in P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador.

With files from Radio-Canada's Jean-François Poudrier

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