Helping people affected by opioid crisis even more challenging amid COVID-19

While the world deals with a global pandemic, people on the front lines of the opioid crisis in Sudbury hope that health emergency isn't forgotten. 

Outreach workers with Réseau Access Network in Sudbury continue to provide street outreach each day

While public attention is focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, drug overdoses continue to be an issue in Sudbury. (CBC)

While the world deals with a global pandemic, people on the front lines of the opioid crisis in Sudbury hope that health emergency isn't forgotten. 

"It's still very much something that people are facing every single day, and it's still very much something that's killing people," said Amber Fritz, outreach coordinator with Réseau Access Network.

Fritz and other outreach workers provide support seven days a week to people who use drugs, giving out safe injection supplies and naloxone  — and any help or advice they can provide. While staff continue to go out into the streets each day, Fritz says the work has become even more difficult — and the struggles of those affected even more palpable. 

"Just when you think it couldn't get any more challenging with the overdose crisis, and now there's just this whole other layer on top of it." 

Keeping people safe

Like just about all services, outreach workers with Résseau Access Network have had to make adjustments to how they operate, in keeping with physical distancing guidelines. While they still hand people supplies, Fritz said workers try to keep their distance as much as possible, and wear gloves.

One of the big challenges, though, has been communicating public health guidelines to the people they serve. It's a particular challenge, Fritz says, because the "best practices" for safety amid COVID-19 and those related to safer drug use are contradictory. 

Fritz is used to repeating the message to people not to use drugs alone, in case of an overdose. 

"But when we're being told no, you can't gather in groups of more than five people, or you know you've got to keep your six foot distance from people, that makes it very challenging to tell people to be there to respond to an overdose," Fritz said. 

Amber Fritz, outreach coordinator with Résseau Access Network, says the COVID-19 pandemic has made life even more difficult for people living with drug addictions. (Submitted by Amber Fritz)

Workers have also had to stop telling people to attempt mouth to mouth resuscitation in the case of an overdose, which she said had become the "gold standard." 

"Trying to keep people safe from a virus, and trying to keep people alive from a toxic drug supply is incredibly challenging," Fritz said. 

'People are struggling'

Providing outreach daily to people who are already facing many challenges, Fritz says she's noticed the extra toll the pandemic has taken. 

"People are struggling, and you can see the stress in people's faces. You can feel the apprehension. The interactions with people are so different from how they were," Fritz said. 

Fritz has also noticed an increase in how much naloxone staff has been handing out.

"Often when I hand someone a naloxone kit and I ask if they've had to use one recently, often a response that I get is, 'an hour ago,' 'last night,' 'this morning.'"

With the two concurrent crises, Fritz worries in the weeks and months ahead the dangers faced by drug users could become worse. 

"Now that the borders are closed, you know you hear in larger cities you know certain drugs are becoming harder to find. But it doesn't mean that the need for them is gone. Which, in my opinion is going to result in a much more toxic drug supply."