Thursday , 17 June 2021

MENZIES: It was a public health crisis before, so how to respond to rising opioid use?

Will opinion change on what a public health emergency response requires after COVID-19 is corralled? 

Before 2020, I didn’t think a lot about public health. Pandemics, vaccines, and viral load were not part of the daily vernacular. Needless to say, that’s all changed since this virus began spreading.

But well before that, a hard conversation about a worsening public health crisis was already happening, with no clear and consistent direction from governments and social supports on what to do on the large-scale.

The opioid crisis, as it was called then, was considered a deadly problem for young Canadian adults.

There were more than 11,500 apparent opioid-related deaths between January 2016 and December 2018, the Canada Centre on Substance Use and Addiction reports.

And this crisis has predictably become more deadly in the past year, with Alberta having a record of 904 opioid-related deaths in the first 10 months of 2020 and 1,548 illicit drug deaths in 2020 in British Columbia.

Things get a little more dire when looking at a story from The Star that came out last week that hints at the particular difficulties over the course of last year.

They reported statistics released last Monday from StatsCan–what statisticians call “excess deaths,” which are the number of people who have died above and beyond what would be predicted in a normal year.

The numbers show from May to October, just under 7,200 Canadians under the age of 45 died — 1,385 more than statisticians predicted for that time period and 81 per cent were men.

Of the “excess” deaths of young men in the summer, most were concentrated in B.C. or Alberta and just fewer than 50 of them are known to have died of COVID-19 itself.

While men under 45 account for 75 per cent of suicide deaths, the B.C. Coroners Service confirmed that a portion of the excess deaths in that province were due to the sharp rise in deaths related to toxic and illicit drugs, an issue that has held the status of a public health emergency in B.C. since 2016.

It seems this health emergency, which has outpaced COVID-19 deaths in that province (1,010), will need a major response of targeted measures in order to tackle the problem.

Kamloops city council unanimously approved a motion put forward by a trio of city councillors, calling on the federal government to declare the opioid crisis a national public health emergency and others have called for a nationwide overdose action plan.

This however is not just a British Columbia problem. The Lakeland certainly has its own problems with opioids.

Just as an example, Lac La Biche RCMP took 126 grams of suspected meth, 15 grams of suspected cocaine, and 12 grams of suspected fentanyl off the streets in mid-December, the type of bust that happens every month or two and illustrates the amount of narcotics that are in the area.

We’ve seen the heavy response to COVID-19 taken by the provincial and federal governments and I understand why some of these measures are needed–we have an uncontrolled virus that we can’t yet immunize for.

The two public health emergencies are quite different, one is a virus and one involves the voluntary use of drugs. I’m not here to argue about how dangerous COVID is. But as a society currently focused on public health, and looking at the figures above, will our perspective change on what’s needed to actually get to the root of these drug problems?

If opioid overdose was a public health crisis before–what is it now and what sort of government response will be needed to flatten that curve amidst this new normal of social isolation?

About Michael Menzies

Menzies is the editor-at-large for Connected Media Inc. Born and raised in Vermilion, he started in May 2018 during his NAIT Radio and Television practicum and reports on local politics, sports, and community issues. He became the Bonnyville Pontiacs play-by-play voice during the 2019-20 season. He also comments on provincial and national issues. Menzies hosts Connected! Evening Monday-Thursday at 5 o’clock. He also likes to buy books and read some of them.