BC is in the midst of two public health emergencies: the COVID-19 pandemic and the worsening drug overdose crisis. People who use illicit drugs face a higher risk of COVID-19 infection, complications, and mortality due to underlying health conditions and in some cases living conditions which make public health measures such as physical distancing, hand-washing and staying at home difficult to practice. They face a higher risk of overdose or death due to a toxic illicit drug market in combination with COVID-19 pandemic, which has reduced access to health, social and harm reduction services, increasing isolation and risks of using drugs.

To mitigate the potentially fatal impact of these dual emergencies, the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use introduced a guidance document for service providers to support them in prescribing medications for people to use as alternatives to illicit drugs and alcohol, and to encourage the implementation of managed alcohol programs. It is hoped that these measures will reduce drug and alcohol related harms by giving people an alternative.

Canada Research Chair and Canadian Institute of Substance Use Research Scientist, Dr. Karen Urbanoski, along with Dr. Bernie Pauly, Island Health Scholar in Residence, Professor of Nursing and fellow scientist at the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research are leading (with other researchers at Simon Fraser University and the BC Centre of Disease Control) a study of the new risk reduction guidelines. The study will look at the extent to which service providers are implementing prescription alternatives and managed alcohol programs, and evaluate whether they prevent overdoses and drug and alcohol related harms as well as COVID-19 infection and spread.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified social and health inequities, especially for people who use drugs. May through July 2020, BC saw the highest number of overdoses on record—higher than what we previously thought was the height of the overdose epidemic. It is beyond time to address these disparities, and support the health and lives of people who use drugs,” says Dr. Pauly.

This research will yield important knowledge and information for people who use drugs and their loved ones, and for the health and wellness of BC communities. Providing alternatives to the illicit drug market stands to save lives by reducing unequal risks faced by people who use drugs, and studying its implementation now will generate valuable evidence of the outcomes and impact in future.