Calls for safer opioid supply grow as COVID-19 pandemic compounds overdose crisis

Physicians and harm reduction workers say the need for a safer opioid supply as a way to curb overdose deaths is even more urgent now in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If safe supply were something that was readily available to people who use drugs, it would drastically increase their ability to stay put and stay in place, wherever they deem their home to be,” said Andrea Sereda, a family physician at the London InterCommunity Health Centre in London, Ont.

She has been prescribing hydromorphone pills since last year to more than 100 patients who relied on illegal street opioids and were at risk of overdosing.

There were more than 14,700 opioid-related overdose deaths in Canada from 2016 to 2019, most of which were non-pharmaceutical fentanyl or a fentanyl analogue.

Sereda’s program — and a number of other programs like it across Canada that are part of the safe supply movement — has been successful at preventing people from overdosing and dying from the increasingly toxic illicit supply, and also helping them access stable housing and other health supports.

Sereda is part of a growing chorus of front-line workers who say this type of prescribing needs to be ramped up to help people who rely on the street supply in order to protect them from the spread of COVID-19 and also mitigate the increased risks of using street opioids alone. 

“Having a safe supply for people who choose to continue using drugs would give them the ability to stay in place,” Sereda said. “Then they’re not out seeking their drug dealer. They’re not having that interaction with their drug dealer multiple times a day. They’re not out panhandling, doing sex work to acquire the medication that they then go home to use.”

Last year, Health Canada commissioned a group of experts to look into developing and funding pilot projects aimed at providing access to “pharmaceutical-grade medications as an alternative to the contaminated illegal drug supply.”

Details on which programs will receive funding for this won’t be made public until the agreements are signed, a Health Canada spokesperson told Global News earlier this month.

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