WCH CONNECTAugust 26, 2020

Acknowledging International Overdose Awareness Day

  • August 26, 2020
  • BY Dr. Jennifer Wyman

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August 31 is International Overdose Awareness Day (#iOAD2020), a global event held each year to raise awareness of overdose and reduce the stigma of drug-related death. Overdose Awareness Day also acknowledges the grief felt by family, friends and those who work with people who have died from overdose.

The past four months have seen an increase in overdose deaths as people who use drugs experienced coinciding risks of COVID-19 on top of the ongoing crisis of overdose and drug poisoning. In July alone, Toronto Paramedic Services attended to 27 suspected opioid overdose-related deaths  the highest number recorded in a month since Toronto Public Health began monitoring this data. This follows 25 deaths per month in both April and May 2020. There was an 85% increase in suspected opioid overdose-related deaths attended by paramedics in Toronto during the COVID-19 pandemic (from March to July) compared to the average number of monthly suspected opioid overdose-related deaths in 2019  (toronto.ca/health/overdosestats). 

Contributing factors include the disrupted and contaminated drug supply, closures of supervised consumption sites, and recommendations for physical distancing, leading to people using more toxic drugs without the safety net of others who could identify and potentially reverse an overdose.

In light of #iOAD2020, the Substance Use Service (SUS) at Women’s College Hospital wants to take the opportunity to remind the WCH community that we provide care for people who use any substances in problematic ways through our clinic (pre-booked appointments, by clinician or self-referral) and through the Rapid Access Addiction Medicine (RAAM) clinic, which sees people on a walk-in basis between 10:00 a.m. - 12:00 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.

As healthcare providers, please remember the following:

  • People can experience harms at any dose of opioids, but especially when combined with benzodiazepines or other sedating medications, including high dose gabapentin/pregabalin and alcohol. Any person receiving an opioid prescription should be offered a naloxone kit.
  • Naloxone kits are available at many harm reduction agencies and pharmacies, including at the WCH Rexall free of charge. While they don’t require a prescription, writing “please dispense a naloxone kit” on a prescription increases the likelihood that the patient actually receives a kit when they pick up another prescription from the pharmacy.

Overdose response tips:

  • Always give naloxone to someone experiencing an overdose (even if you don’t know what drugs they took). Some people may have used more than one drug, or the drug they thought they were taking contained unexpected drugs. Naloxone may not work on other drugs but will temporarily reverse the effects of any opioids contributing to the overdose.
  • Call 911. Medical attention is vital, especially with unexpected drugs in the supply. In an overdose situation, the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act provides some legal protection from drug-related charges related to personal use and simple possession offences. Stay with the person until help arrives.
  • Wear a mask or face covering and medical gloves when helping in an overdose. This will help reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.

The SUS is available to provide virtual training on the use of naloxone kits to any service within the organization. Please email Camille.keith@wchospital.ca for further information.

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