After her son died of an overdose, this woman wants to fight opioid crisis with urgency of COVID-19
B.C. saw 728 opioid-related deaths in first half of 2020; 189 deaths from COVID-19
One month after losing her son to an overdose, Kathleen Radu is calling on authorities to tackle the opioid crisis with the same urgency as the fight to contain COVID-19.
"B.C.'s been leading the way with COVID, why aren't we leading the way with this?" said Radu, from Victoria, B.C., and a member of Moms Stop The Harm, a national support and advocacy group for people who have lost loved ones to overdoses.
There have been 728 opioid-related deaths in B.C. in the first half of 2020, an increase from 538 deaths in the same period for 2019. The province has recorded 189 deaths from COVID-19.
"How many more kids, young adults need to die? It's shocking to me that we're still talking about this," Radu told The Current's guest host Robyn Bresnahan.
Radu's son Morgan Goodridge died June 16, a week after his 26th birthday. His substance use dated back to when he was 15, his mother said, but it was only in recent years that he began to use heroin.
"We had lots of long conversations about it with him, but again, you know, there's a lot of shame around addiction," Radu said, adding that Goodridge "would brush it off like it was no big deal."
At the time of his death, he was in recovery and hadn't used drugs in five months, Radu said.
"He'd just bought his first car, was starting a new job and was really, really hopeful about the future."
The night before he passed away, her son called home to tell his mother and father about the pictures he was taking with a new camera — a birthday gift.
"And the next morning, he got up and was working on his car and came in and made a coffee," Radu told Bresnahan.
"And at some point during that morning, he took a toxic dose of fentanyl and was found in his bed."
Radu got a call later that day. Goodridge had relapsed, and died from an accidental overdose.
"I'll never forget that day, for as long as I live. Having to tell his brother and his sister that we don't ever get him back."
Radu said that when the pandemic hit, she saw both federal and provincial governments move quickly to offer guidance and "financial support for people, for businesses, for communities, which was needed to flatten the curve."
She wants to see the same "immediate action" to contain the opioid crisis.
"This isn't even about a curve. This is about flipping this totally on its head," she said.
"We have a COVID update every week. Why are we not having an illicit drug overdose [update]?"
5,000 opioid deaths in B.C.
More than 5,000 people have died in B.C. since the opioid crisis was declared a public health emergency in 2016. The annual death toll decreased from 2018 to 2019, before increasing again during the pandemic.
Judy Darcy, B.C.'s minister for mental health and addictions, said the rise in opioid-related deaths was driven by a "perfect storm," though "there's nothing perfect about it."
"The coroner has been crystal clear that the reason for the spike in deaths is because COVID-19 hit," she told Bresnahan.
"We have the drug supply interrupted and that means, the coroner says, there are more toxic drugs on the street than ever, ever before in our history," she said.
She added that because of physical distancing efforts, "people are living in more isolated ways. More people, then, are using substances, alcohol and drugs."
WATCH | B.C.'s provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry on opioid fatalities:
Last week, B.C. Premier John Horgan said the overdose crisis and the pandemic are both public health emergencies, but come with different challenges.
"We have an insidious virus that affects anyone at any time and we have an opioid crisis that involves people using drugs," he said.
Solution is safe supply: professor
Mark Haden, an adjunct professor at UBC's School of Population and Public Health, said one of the differences is that COVID-19 affects everyone, but "addiction concerns affect people that are often targeted and marginalized."
He added: "there isn't an immediate solution to COVID, but there is a solution to the overdose crisis, and the solution to the overdose crisis is safe supply."
Safe supply programs provide tested and regulated drugs that would otherwise only be available on the illicit drug market. The drugs can be administered under medical supervision, further decreasing the risk to the person.
There are currently several clinics and pilot projects offering safe supply across Canada, but because the drugs used — including opioids — remain illegal in other circumstances, the federal government must grant an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
In March, the federal government announced temporary exemptions to the Act, in response to the pandemic.
Darcy said her government took advantage of those additional exemptions to get 1,300 more people in B.C. on safe prescription meds.
"We've already begun, it's about ramping it up even further," she told Bresnahan.
"It's about working with the federal government in order to gain greater exemptions and more flexibility under the Controlled Substances Act."
WATCH | Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu on drug stigma:
When Bresnahan asked if the minister was "passing the buck" to the federal government, Darcy said: "We get up every morning focused on one thing and one thing alone, and that is how we can save more lives."
"We want the federal government to join us as partners in this."
'Didn't have to die that day'
Radu said there are "so many different reasons why people relapse, but a relapse should not have to be death. It just shouldn't."
She believes her son would be alive "if he had had a safe supply, if there was less stigma and shame and judgment around addiction."
"Morgan didn't have to die that day."
Radu wants the federal and provincial government to ditch the pilot projects and "take immediate action" for safe supply.
She also wants more discussion about the decriminalization of drugs, and more support for the families of those dealing with substance addiction.
The memory of her son gives her strength to speak out about the issue, only a month after his death.
"He had so much hope for his life and his future, and he truly believed that he could beat this, and I truly believed he could," she said.
"But the disease is so fierce."
Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Sarah-Joyce Battersby, Kate Cornick, Ines Colabrese and Samira Mohyeddin.