Seven people in the Yukon have died of drug overdoses in 2020, prompting authorities and harm reduction workers to urge people to not use alone despite COVID-19 physical distancing recommendations.
The Yukon’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Brendan Hanley and chief coroner Heather Jones announced the deaths in a press release May 8, noting that there are “concerns that the street supply is becoming even more unpredictable as regular supply channels are disrupted.”
“We grieve with the family and friends of those seven individuals and it’s a reminder to all of us that even during a pandemic, we cannot forget the other urgent public health needs like substance use addictions and overdose,” Hanley said at a press conference later that day.
“… For Yukoners who use substances, the risk of overdose is much higher than the risk of contracting COVID-19.”
Hanley said that even with recommendations for people to physically distance and stay home, it’s of “utmost importance” for people using substances to follow harm-reduction rules.
“Please don’t use alone and have a naloxone kit handy,” he suggested.
Naloxone, available for free at many pharmacies and community health centres across the territory, is a drug that immediately reverses the effects of an opioid overdose.
Fentanyl, a powerful opioid that can be mixed into other substances without users’ knowledge, caused three of the seven deaths. Those three deaths took place in March and April; officials are awaiting toxicology confirmation for three deaths in January and February, Jones said in an email, while the seventh death has been linked to a non-opioid.
The Yukon saw a total of three fatal fentanyl overdoses in 2019, all in November. There were 15 fentanyl-related deaths in the territory between 2016 and 2018.
Blood Ties Four Directions Centre executive director Emily Jones said in an interview May 11 that frontline staff in Whitehorse have “definitely” been hearing of more overdoses in the community over the past two months.
“We started kind of noticing more clients coming in and just saying, oh, they had a friend overdose, because not everyone dies from an overdose,” Emily said, adding that the centre’s fentanyl-testing service has also been a bit busier.
She described the situation as “really nuanced,” but said it was generally accepted that COVID-19-related restrictions on travel, including border closures both nationally and internationally, have disrupted regular drug supply chains.
And like all supply chains, prices tend to go up when there’s a disruption, meaning people may no longer be able to afford what they usually buy and have to turn to something less familiar.
“So this person might be in a position where they’re having to choose a different drug to use,” Emily explained, “and that can pose significant risk because if you’re not used to using a certain drug or maybe you’re switching your supplier, you’re always a little more at risk because you’re losing a little bit of that control as to what is in your substance.”
Blood Ties, she said, is a “huge advocate” for introducing safe supply, or the regulated, legal distribution of drugs people typically obtain on the black market.
Among other things, safe supplies would ensure that people are getting drugs that aren’t mixed with other substance, thereby reducing the risk of overdoses or other adverse effects of unwittingly taking something.
Asked about it on May 8, Hanley said the Yukon is “considering” safe supply but hasn’t taken action yet.
“I would say it’s at the early phases of studying the issue and whether it’s something that we would be able to implement here,” he said.
Emily acknowledged that safe supply “can be really hard” for the public to grasp, but said that “it’s all about safety and compassion.”
In the meantime, she said, people can turn to the harm-reduction resources that are available, such as naloxone kits, support services offered by both Blood Ties and the Yukon government, fentanyl testing, a needle exchange, an outreach van and following the recommendation to not use alone. Blood Ties is also offering to send staff to safely pick up any needles or drug supplies Whitehorse residents may find in the city.
Emily urged people to “just have compassion.”
“Everyone’s lives have value,” she said, “… We’re all just trying to keep each other safe, regardless of whether that’s COVID or drug use or overdose.”
Contact Jackie Hong at firstname.lastname@example.org