Number of Regina overdose deaths climbs to 63, triple 2019 total
Recovering addict says many people have relapsed due to isolation, service reduction in pandemic
The number of overdose deaths in Regina has almost doubled in the past two months from 33 to 63, climbing drastically higher than the total of 21 deaths for the whole of 2019.
Regina police have received 712 reports of overdoses so far this year, compared with 82 for the whole year of 2019, police said.
Chief Evan Bray said a shortage in the supply of methamphetamine due to COVID-19 travel restrictions has led to more people using the opioid fentanyl.
"In the past, when you're dealing with addictions, it's definitely people that have addictions in things like cocaine and meth, which I'm not going to say is not a danger to your health," said Bray.
"But I think fentanyl, more than causing people to engage in irrational behaviour, poses a serious health risk to the point that people are losing their lives as a result of these overdoses."
Sask. overdose numbers highest in 10 years
The number of suspected and confirmed overdose deaths for Saskatchewan is also the highest in 10 years.
According to the Saskatchewan Coroner's Service, 40 deaths in the province have been confirmed to be due to overdoses so far this year. Another 190 deaths are believed to be linked to overdoses but are still being investigated.
Bray said he recently met with members of the Ministry of Health and, although he is impressed with the ministry's response, he advocated for more immediate support when people are in crisis.
"It's really about, can we provide that service immediately when police or emergency response are on scene with a person?" he said.
"That's the time to get that emergency intervention happening. A lot of times, when people find themselves in crisis is when they're crying out for help the most."
He said more streamlining of services is needed to avoid putting people on waiting lists to connect with support services.
"We need to build some capacity so that there are no wait times and we could have rapid intervention."
By Feb. 20 of this year, the total number of overdoses (fatal and non-fatal) reported to police in Regina was 69. By early June, there were 349 overdoses and Bray called the situation a "pandemic within a pandemic."
In late June, the police service announced there had been 33 overdose deaths since the start of the year. In early July, six people died of overdoses in Regina in 36 hours.
In Saskatoon last month, paramedics responded to 100 overdose calls in a week — a record high.
The role of COVID-19
Asked how much of the Regina increase in fentanyl use is attributable to COVID-19, and how much is linked to the "arrival" of fentanyl to Saskatchewan as a more accessible drug, Bray said "sadly, I think it is a little bit of both."
"Fentanyl wasn't even on our radar in 2017," said Bray.
"And now in the last three years, it's become a significant health risk in our community. So, you know, this is a big health issue. There's no doubt about it. I don't know if there's any one contributing factor to it, but we are definitely seeing an increase now."
Earlier this week, Hayley Huartson was hanging purple ribbons with the names of people who have died from overdoses on the Albert Street Memorial Bridge in Regina.
A recovering addict herself, Huartson was participating in an International Overdose Awareness Day event celebrating the lives of people who have died. Some of the people whose names were on the ribbons died just over a week ago. She knew at least 10 of them.
"Having to write names of my loved ones on those ribbons was really devastating for me," she said.
Huartson said the pandemic has been hard on people with addictions due to closures and limits on detox and rehabilitation services.
Former addicts relapsing in pandemic
She said in-person recovery groups have been forced to move online and digital meetings don't provide the physical, mental and emotional support that people need.
"It was really difficult for them to continue to stay sober. We saw a number of people go out and relapse during the pandemic. The people that were able to stay clean, it was hard for them," said Huartson.
"I'm one of them where it was hard for me to stay clean during the pandemic, but I did because I have that support."
Huartson also said detox and rehabilitation facilities need to be more accessible to people who sometimes have to wait weeks or months to be accepted, and that 30-day programs are insufficient without additional aftercare.
She said resources for addictions need to become a bigger political issue.
"I'm sick of losing friends. I'm sick of losing loved ones. It shouldn't have to happen," she said.
She urged anyone who has an addiction issue to seek help.
"Recovery is possible and you do not need to be on a ribbon," said Huartson.
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- A previous version of this story said the number of overdoses reported by the Saskatchewan Coroners Service was 190, including 40 that had been confirmed. In fact, the correct number is 230, including 190 suspected overdoses and 40 that have been confirmed.Sep 02, 2020 1:05 PM CT
With files from CBC's Kirk Fraser