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Gomes T, Kitchen SA, Murray R. Measuring the Burden of Opioid-Related Mortality in Ontario, Canada, During the COVID-19 Pandemic. JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(5):e2112865. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.12865
The COVID-19 pandemic struck in the midst of an epidemic of opioid overdoses that has resulted in nearly 20 000 deaths in Canada since 2016.1 Pandemic-mandated measures, including changes to health care delivery to accommodate physical distancing and increased social isolation, can increase the risk of harm for people who use drugs.2 For example, reduced operation hours of health care services (eg, pharmacies and outpatient clinics) and harm reduction services (eg, drug checking programs and supervised consumption sites) have introduced additional barriers to care for people with opioid use disorder.2 Data from across North America suggest that the rate of opioid-related deaths has increased during the pandemic.1,3,4 We sought to quantify the added burden of fatal opioid overdoses occurring in Ontario during the first 6 months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This cross-sectional study was approved by the Unity Health Toronto research ethics board and followed the Strengthening the Reporting of Observational Studies in Epidemiology (STROBE) reporting guideline. We conducted a cross-sectional time series analysis of weekly fatal opioid overdoses among people aged 15 years or older in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, from January 1, 2018, to September 20, 2020. We then compared fatal overdose rates and characteristics between three 6-month periods: the COVID-19 period (March 16 to September 15, 2020, beginning when a state of emergency was declared in Ontario); period 1, the same 6-month period in the prior year (March 16 to September 15, 2019); and period 2, the 6 months immediately before the COVID-19 period (September 14, 2019, to March 15, 2020). We obtained data on all confirmed or suspected opioid-related deaths from the Ontario Office of the Chief Coroner, including age; sex; rural or urban residence; whether fentanyl, stimulants, or benzodiazepines were detected; and whether naloxone was administered.3 An opioid-related death was defined as an acute intoxication or toxicity death resulting from the direct contribution of an opioid. Suspected opioid-related deaths were defined on the basis of evidence of drug use or paraphernalia found at the scene and/or an opioid detected in postmortem toxicology without final confirmation from the investigating coroner. We compared characteristics across the 3 periods using χ2 and t tests, with a type I error rate of .05 as the threshold for statistical significance. All tests were 2-tailed. Analyses were conducted in R version 4.0.4 (R Project for Statistical Computing). We used methods adapted from the Global Burden of Disease study5 to calculate the years of potential life lost (YLL) due to fatal opioid overdose.
Over the entire study period, the weekly number of opioid-related deaths increased 135%, from 23 to 54 deaths, with the most rapid growth occurring among those younger than 35 years (320% increase, from 5 to 21 opioid-related deaths weekly) (Figure). During the three 6-month periods of interest, a total of 2774 individuals (2037 [73.4%] men; 1311 [47.2%] aged 35-54 years) died from an opioid-related cause. In the first 6 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, 1237 people died of opioid-related causes (99.3 per million; 49 155 YLL) (Table). In contrast, 766 (62.4 per million; P < .001) and 771 (61.9 per million; P < .001) people died in period 1 and period 2, respectively, leading to 30 286 and 31 312 YLL, respectively. While most characteristics of fatal overdoses remained similar between periods, there were significant increases between period 2 and the COVID-19 period in the proportion of deaths among men (528 [68.5%] vs 948 [76.7%]; P < .001) and the prevalence of fentanyl (586 [76.0%] vs 1056 [85.4%]; P < .001) and stimulants (485 [62.9%] vs 880 [71.1%]; P < .001) (Table).
Increasing rates of opioid-related deaths, particularly among young adults in Ontario, place a considerable burden on society. In the first 6 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, an additional 17 843 years of life were lost due to opioid overdose compared with the 6 months prior. A limitation of this study was that not all death investigations (29 of 2778 [1.0%] during the 3 periods) have concluded; however, it is likely that all of these will be confirmed as opioid related. The rising rates of harm among young adults as well as the increased contributions of fentanyl and stimulants to these deaths emphasize the urgent need for low-barrier access to evidence-based harm reduction services and treatment for opioid use disorder in all jurisdictions grappling with the overdose–COVID-19 syndemic.6
Accepted for Publication: April 9, 2021.
Published: May 26, 2021. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.12865
Open Access: This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the CC-BY License. © 2021 Gomes T et al. JAMA Network Open.
Corresponding Author: Tara Gomes, PhD, Keenan Research Centre of the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, St Michael’s Hospital, 30 Bond St, Toronto, ON M5B 1W8 Canada (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Author Contributions: Mss Murray and Kitchen had full access to all of the data in the study and take responsibility for the integrity of the data and the accuracy of the data analysis.
Concept and design: All authors.
Acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data: All authors.
Drafting of the manuscript: Gomes, Kitchen.
Critical revision of the manuscript for important intellectual content: Kitchen, Murray.
Statistical analysis: Kitchen.
Administrative, technical, or material support: All authors.
Conflict of Interest Disclosures: Dr Gomes reported receiving grants from the Ontario Ministry of Health outside the submitted work. No other disclosures were reported.
Funding/Support: This study was funded by a grant from the Ontario Ministry of Health and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
Role of the Funder/Sponsor: The funders had no role in the design and conduct of the study; collection, management, analysis, and interpretation of the data; preparation, review, or approval of the manuscript; and decision to submit the manuscript for publication.
Disclaimer: The opinions, results, and conclusions reported in this paper are those of the authors and are independent from the funding sources.
Additional Information: The authors thank the Ontario Office of the Chief Coroner for their support in accessing this data.