COVID And Substance Use: National Addictions Awareness Week

National Addictions Awareness Week is in full swing, with today shining the spotlight on the effects of  COVID and substance use disorders.

As COVID-19 dominates the newswires, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) reports that its inquiries during the pandemic have found “people who use substances report a loss of social connection and supports, as well as an increase in isolation, fear and anxiety as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Compared to the general population, they are more vulnerable to the health impacts of COVID-19 and the hardships of physical distancing.”

As such, it says, “COVID exposes the shortcomings that have long existed for people who use substances in the type, access to and availability of healthcare and social services.”

COVID and Substance Use: Reduced Supports

By July 2020, CCSA was reporting that “25% of Canadians aged 35-54 and 21% of those aged 18-34 have increased their alcohol consumption since social distancing and self-isolation due to COVID-19.”

As the pandemic rages, support networks diminish. With a decreased availability in illicit drugs, the toxicity of supply begins to show its ugly head. While governments at all levels are trying to provide support with funding a wide assortment of programs, the facts indicate the problem is worsening.

Addiction Statistics in Canada and United States

In Manitoba, as of last week, there had been 198 deaths recorded due to COVID. It’s not a case of who hits bottom first, but the results of addiction are soaring as well. As of the end of last month, 1,189 patients had been saved via naloxone so far this year. The total for all of last year was 789.  Those are lives saved that would have been lost.

The final numbers of addiction-related deaths for 2020 are not yet out. But taking in problems related to the many harmful substances from alcohol to meth, from cocaine to tobacco, they will certainly dwarf the COVID deaths.

Tim Fletcher, the founder and president of Re:Act, a day program that offers trauma-informed counselling through addiction treatment programs in Winnipeg, says his organization’s group counselling sessions are shifting into smaller, distanced groups, while other sessions go online.

In a story on the CBC website on November 18, 2020, Fletcher sounded the alarm about COVID and substance use.

“There’s lots of addictions issues, mental health issues, domestic violence issues… Everybody’s struggling,” Fletcher told reporter Rachel Bergen. Fletcher believes there has been a nearly 30 percent increase in relapse so far, during the pandemic.

In British Columbia, in each month from March to August, there were upwards of 100 illicit drug toxicity deaths. September saw more than double the 60 deaths of last year. Paramedics in that province are reporting a 75 percent increase in overdose calls.

In Ontario, the confirmed and probable deaths went from 148 in January, to 220 by May.

John Lane, Winnipeg’s fire-paramedic chief put it succinctly to a  CBC reporter last month. “There is no question the drug epidemic is being overshadowed by COVID.”

Of course, Canada is not alone. In the United States, the American Medical Association says that the nation’s surge in opioid addiction has grown into a much more complicated and deadly drug overdose epidemic. Indeed, as of October 2020, over 40 U.S. states have reported increases in opioid-related mortality.

COVID and Substance Use Effects on 12 Step Fellowships

The 12 Step movement, estimated at over two million strong based on its staple fellowships of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, lost most of its in-person meetings when the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020. Who survived? Who succumbed? It will take many more months, perhaps years, before the true impact of the pandemic is revealed on that population. 

Becoming aware of what addiction is, what can be done to offer help to those afflicted, is all part of the solution. As Addiction Awareness Week arrives, it is important to understand that those who suffer in their addictions are not a small number. And if you are one of those who thinks that alcohol is not a significant problem in light of the opioid crisis, think again.

The CCSA tells us a fifth of Canadian drinkers consume more than the safe guidelines. Nearly 75,000 are hospitalized every year as a result of alcohol consumption, and it accounts for between one percent and two percent of all deaths in Canada.

Studies are often years too late, but they do disclose the truth.

In 2014, alcohol contributed to 14,826 deaths in Canada.

In 2017, the rate of hospitalizations entirely caused by alcohol (249 per 100,000) was comparable to the rate of hospitalizations for heart attacks (243 per 100,000). The physical and family costs mount, just as the social prices climb as well. The most recent comprehensive cost study estimated the total cost of alcohol-related harm to Canadians to be $14.6 billion in 2014. This figure includes the following $5.9 billion annually in lost productivity due to disability and premature death and $3.2 billion for criminal justice costs.

When all is said and done with the pandemic, numbers crunched, costs revealed, the world will again focus on addiction. What will the figures say about this time in our history? How did we respond to addiction during COVID? 

Addiction is a part of our lives, and in families across the nation. Those who work in the field, including the staff at Aurora Recovery Centre, are doing what we can to help those reaching out for help. Education is paramount to offering recovery.

Addiction Awareness is a great place to start.

by Jeff Vircoe