Opioids killed more people in Ontario in the second year of the epidemic than in the first, and there was a significant jump in deaths in both years than before the pandemic, according to newly released data.
Preliminary numbers from the Ontario Chief Medical Examiner’s office indicate a lower opioid mortality rate in the province in March 2022.
About eight people die daily from opioids in the second year of the epidemic. From April 2021 to March 2022, 2,790 opioid-related deaths were recorded, a slight increase from 2,727 deaths in the epidemic’s first year, the coroner’s office said.
Those have been big leaps since 2019, when opioids killed 1,559 Ontarians — about four people a day.
“It’s going on and it’s bad, and it has gotten worse during the pandemic,” Dr. Dirk Hoyer, Ontario’s chief medical examiner, said in an interview.
But the data also indicates a 10 percent drop in the death rate in the first quarter of 2022 compared to the same period last year.
Hoyer said the data is preliminary because it includes both confirmed and probable opioid-related deaths, and is subject to change.
“Should we celebrate the fact that we’re down 10 percent?” Huyer said. “No. We still have a lot of people dying, but, yeah, we don’t keep going up, so that’s okay.”
The total number of deaths was down 31 percent in March 2022 compared to March 2021. Ontario lifted most of its COVID-19 restrictions that month, though Huyer said that at this point, that’s just a correlation, not necessarily the cause of the decline.
Overall, the death rate from opioid toxicity in 2021 was 19.5 deaths per 100,000 people — more than double the rate of 9.1 deaths per 100,000 people in 2017.
The data for Huyer suggest that the jump in opioid deaths during the pandemic has been due to an increase in the number of people using drugs alone due to the lack of available services in their communities.
“This community is now opening up again, so there is some support from a safety perspective, but also supports mental well-being, and overall, things are generally getting better,” Huyer said.
He also said the border closures may have had an impact on drug supplies.
Northern Ontario remains the hardest-hit province in the province, and the problem is getting worse, with a death rate more than double that of the region.
“Thunder Bay, Sudbury, Algoma, just big increases,” Hoyer said.
The Thunder Bay District Health Unit had an opioid death rate of 82.1 per 100,000 people in the first quarter — the highest in the county and more than four times the county’s rate.
Public Health Sudbury and District came next, with an opioid mortality rate of 57.9 per 100,000, while Algoma Public Health ranked – in and around Sault Ste. Mary, Ont. It ranked third, with a mortality rate of 52 per 100,000.
The coroner’s report says men continue to die from opioids at a disproportionate rate, accounting for three out of every four deaths in Ontario. Men aged 25-44 accounted for 54 percent of deaths in the first quarter of 2022.
The data indicate that fentanyl remains the most common substance found in those who have died from opioids. Fentanyl was involved in 88 percent of deaths in 2021, up from 86 percent the previous year, which itself is a huge jump from 53 percent in all opioid deaths in 2019.
Tara Gomez, an epidemiologist at Unity Health in Toronto who studies opioid use, is cautious about the recent drop in deaths, reported in March, saying the data is still preliminary.
“It’s very hard to know for sure at the moment, but it’s better than the alternative, which we keep seeing through
“But it’s important to remember that eight deaths per day compared to four the day before the epidemic is just a big change.”
Her work has focused on the disparities between cities and rural areas as well as the challenges in the northern parts of the province.
“I think a lot of the harm reduction services that we have are really designed to work well in an urban environment, but in larger areas or rural areas it’s more difficult to plan and manage,” she said.
Gomez said the province and federal government need to relax rules for proven opioid treatments like Suboxone and methadone, and expand harm reduction and safe spaces for drug use, as well as the safe supply of drugs.
Her research found that opioids disproportionately kill the homeless and unemployed population during the pandemic. Her research shows that this has had a huge impact on construction workers.
“We still haven’t resolved this.”