Climbing overdose numbers in Sask. compounded by COVID-19: experts

Regina police have reported 11 drug deaths and more than 200 drug overdoses so far in 2020.

Saskatoon paramedics report record week of overdose calls

Regina police are reminding people about the signs of an overdose after more than 200 have happened so far in 2020 in the city. (CBC)

While much attention is focused on the dangers of COVID-19, Regina police warn there's still another deadly epidemic.

Police say the number of drug overdoses in the city continues to climb.

They say there have been 233 overdose events known to police since Jan. 1, and 11 deaths that were confirmed to be drug-related. Eleven other deaths are not confirmed to be drug-related yet. 

Sarah Kozusko, a harm-reduction specialist, pharmacist and operator of Queen City Wellness Pharmacy in Regina, said many of her clients with addiction issues are experiencing an increase in anxiety due to COVID-19. 

"My clients are worried about getting it. People that are homeless even are worried that they're going to get it .... they still have to go out and about to find their drug. And they're having more interactions then they need to," Kozusko said.

"They're anxious and because they're anxious they're using more."

Queen City Wellness Pharmacy carries naloxone, which counteracts the effects of an opioid overdose. The facility also has methadone and suboxone, which are drugs used to treat opioid addictions. 

Kozusko said that this year, the pharmacy has seen a 50 per cent increase in the amount of harm reduction supplies being used. She said she is unsure whether it's because the pharmacy has cultivated a reputation as a safe place to get these supplies, or if it has to do with the impact the pandemic has made on people's wellbeing and anxiety. 

"The availability of harm reduction in the city is not very good. We are one of the few places that have been able to access some harm reduction and Naloxone," Kozusko said. 

She said the provincial government needs to do more to ensure that those with opioid addictions have access to safe supplies — especially as Saskatchewan continues to deal with the pandemic. 

"Our overdoses in Saskatchewan are huge … and they're going to be compounded by COVID."

Police are reminding that the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act protects people from charges for possession of a controlled substance when they call 9-1-1 for help for someone who has overdosed.

Police say the signs of an opioid overdose include: 

  • Difficulty walking, talking or staying awake.
  • Blue lips or nails.
  • Very small pupils.
  • Cold and clammy skin.
  • Dizziness and confusion.
  • Extreme drowsiness.
  • Choking, gurgling or snoring sounds. 
  • Slow, weak or no breathing.
  • Inability to wake up, even when shaken or shouted at.
Sarah Kozusko is a pharmacist at Queen City Wellness Pharmacy in Regina and a specialist in harm reduction. (Submitted by Sarah Kozusko)

Saskatoon paramedics reporting record week of overdoses

Meanwhile in Saskatoon, paramedics are reporting a record week of overdose calls. 

Medavie Health Services West reported 88 overdose calls on the week of April 27, 2020. Medavie said the average before was 40 to 45 overdose calls weekly that involve crystal meth, heroin, alcohol and marijuana. 

"These numbers are very alarming to us, especially having 20 patients in a week that required Narcan administration to wake them up" said Troy Davies, director of public affairs for the service.

"We did anticipate a slight rise to these numbers due to the current COVID pandemic and the mental health effects it's having on residents but to see these numbers double in a week was startling to see."

Davies encouraged people to reach out to family and friends as they continue to deal with isolation. 

"A lot of it does relate back to how people are feeling ... anxiety levels are up, depression is up, and mental health issues."

Health services is encouraging people to reach out for help if they are feeling depressed or any mental health signs or symptoms.

Loss of connection

Kozusko said many people dealing with addiction issues have lost many of their positive social interactions throughout the pandemic.

"I used to serve coffee in the pharmacy so people could sit down and talk and have a healthy conversation with us. We can't do that right now. So all those little connections that people had to healthy society have been really stopped," Kozusko said. 

Reopening plan

On Tuesday the Saskatchewan Health Authority announced its plan to gradually resume health-care services.

Phase 1, set to kick off on May 19, stipulates there will be an option for in-person appointments for mental health and addictions. Meanwhile, short stay units will reopen along with increased harm-reduction programming. 

Opioid addiction treatment is set reopen in Phase 3, along with the reintroduction of more mental health and addictions services, but there is not yet a date for that to happen. 

With files from The Canadian Press